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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A Chat with Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (“Sherlock”)

The characters of Sherlock Holmes and his trusty associate Dr. John Watson have been interpreted every which way but loose since their original inception in 1887, courtesy of Arthur Conan Doyle, and with Guy Ritchie’s take on the Holmes mythos having only just hit theaters last year, it would seem to be a bit premature to put Baker Street’s most famous detective onto the small screen as well…but, then, “Sherlock” – premiering here in the States as part of PBS’s “Masterpiece” on Sunday, Oct. 24, bears precious little resemblance to Robert Downey, Jr.’s big-screen adventure. This is a modern-day look at the characters and their mythology, and for those who might be skeptical that they can successfully survive such a transformation, I believe you’ll be pleasantly surprised. I’ve only seen a portion of the first episode (“A Study in Pink”) thus far, but it was more than enough to sell me on tuning in on the 24th. Mind you, I also had the advantage of sitting down with the series’ executive producers, Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis, whose enthusiasm for the project proved decidedly contagious.

Bullz-Eye: Steven, you and I met in passing a few years ago at the “Jekyll” panel…a show which I loved, by the way…

Steven Moffat: Oh, thank you. Oh, good!

BE: …and, Mark, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I now know that you made an appearance in that series.

Mark Gatiss: That’s right!

BE: So, Steven, what do you enjoy about the challenge of contemporizing British icons? I mean, you can argue that Dr. Jekyll is an icon of sorts, but then you’ve got Doctor Who, and now Sherlock Holmes.

SM: Well, being honest, for me, there isn’t really…it looks like there’s a narrative through that, that I’m trolling for things, but I’m really, really not. “Jekyll” was a totally different experience to this, the one big difference being that it was a sequel set in the modern day. And, really, it looks as if I’ve just been doing that, but, really, seriously, it wasn’t that. This is a completely different experience, and the challenge of this…well, they’re just joys, aren’t they?

MG: It’s true, yeah.

SM: There are so many things that…well, once having started talking about this, we realized it was going to work, because he can still be coming home from Afghanistan, a flat share is what we now call sharing rooms, we’ve gone back to sending telegrams by sending texts…it’s just perfect.

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Steven Moffat discusses 2010 “Doctor Who” Christmas special…but not very much

Given that the annual “Doctor Who” Christmas special is still several months out, I knew full well that Steven Moffat wouldn’t be willing to offer up much in the way of information about what we could expect to see come December, but since I’d been fortunate enough to sit down with him – along with Mark Gatiss – in connection with their work on “Sherlock” (which comes to PBS in October), I couldn’t very well miss the chance to ask about it, anyway.

I started off with a non-specific question, asking how Michael Gambon had found his way into the “Who”-niverse.

“We sent him a script, asked him to do it, and he said, ‘Yes,'” said Moffat. “Simple as that.”

Had Gambon been a fan of the show?

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I didn’t get the impression that he was a fan of ‘Doctor Who,’ except insofar as everyone in Britain is at the moment, but it’s really…with these guys, send them a good part and there’s a really stonking chance they’ll do it. I mean, if it’s a good script…and you think it is…they’re being offered prime-time on Christmas day, really, so there’s a real chance you can get anyone for that. But it’s very exciting. He’s brilliant. Of course he’s brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. What a voice.”

The time had come to make the jump and ask something specific, so I wondered aloud if the teaser line at the end of season finale about the Orient Express in space would indeed come to pass come this Christmas.

“Who knows?” replied Moffat, stonefaced.

I told him he was a terrible person…which caused the stone face to break into a laugh.

“You wouldn’t really want to know,” he said. “I can tell. Also, what you have to keep in mind that I genuinely lie. I do. I actively lie to people about what’s going to happen in ‘Doctor Who.’ I’m not officially employed with the BBC. I can say any old thing I like. Even if I told you something, there’s no guarantee that it’s true. Disinformation and the white noise of nonsense is how we get through this!”

  

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Doctor Who 5.3: Victory of the Daleks

“Daleks. I sometimes think those mutated misfits will terrorize the universe for the rest of time.”

Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor, following yet another skirmish with the cockroaches from Skaro, uttered the above quote near the end of his reign as the Time Lord. If he’d known then that he’d still be dealing with them in his Eleventh incarnation, he may well have decided to forego his impending regeneration, and just gone ahead and called it a millennium. Many “Doctor Who” fans would likely have sympathized with him had he done so. Having been writing these recaps for five years now, I am exhausted by Daleks as well. What else is there for me to say about them that I haven’t already said, or hasn’t been said by countless others time and again? And yet here I am, once again backed into a corner by some angry pepperpots demanding that I find something fresh to say on the subject. Of course, if the series can’t be bothered to do so, I don’t really see why I should, either.

Surprisingly, “Victory of the Daleks,” written by Mark Gatiss, is drenched in promise at its start. Surprising not only because all ground concerning the Daleks seems so thoroughly trod at this point, but also because the last thing Gatiss wrote for the series, “The Idiot’s Lantern,” was a forgettable misfire. The idea of subservient, benevolent Daleks isn’t a new one. It was first explored in Patrick Troughton’s first story “The Power of the Daleks,” but since that serial was junked by the BBC ages ago, only the most hardcore of fans are going to care about this. For all intents and purposes the idea is new, or at least new to us. And the show has a field day with the notion for about ten minutes. Professor Bracewell’s (Bill Paterson) Ironsides are going to win the war against the Nazis, and they’ll serve you tea as well. Just the notion that the Daleks will become this story’s Inglourious Basterds is a fun one, since the Nazis are what the Daleks were based on in the first place. With “Victory of the Daleks,” on some obscure meta level, the entire concept of the Daleks has seemingly come full circle.

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