Doctor Who: Halfway out of the dark

KT is here with an entry of the better-late-than-never variety.

DOCTOR WHO:  Christmas special 2010, “A Christmas Carol”

We had an open thread just a few weeks ago about all the shows that have made an episode based on Dicken’s Christmas classic, and here’s another one to add to the list.  Neither the title nor the episode try to hide the fact, and it actually turns out to be perhaps the best Christmas special the show has made to date. *

The adventure takes place on a very steampunk sort of planet when one grumpy old rich man (Michael Gambon, much better here than as Dumbledore) must be persuaded to go out of his way to use his fabulous sky-controlling machine to enable a crashing spaceship to land properly.  The spaceship is a cruise liner sort of ship — and the passenger list happens to include Amy and Rory, who as you’ll remember are on their honeymoon.  The Doctor can’t get onto the ship to help, but he can get to grumpy Kazran Sardick — a name clearly designed to have the same effect as Ebeneezer Scrooge.

Better than that, though, he can get to Kazran Sardick at any age he wants, because naturally a time traveller is the ultimate Ghost of Christmas Past.  Rather than merely reminding Sardick of his past, he actively changes it, and that’s where things get fun.

There are two world-building elements that really help to make this episode special.  One is that fish swim in the clouds — and when it’s foggy, sometimes they come down, too.  Some of them are just little fish that are drawn to street lamps, but where there are little fish, there are always bigger fish too – and sharks.  But if you’re very clever, you can harness that shark and make it pull your carriage across the sky.

The second is the apparently normal practice of keeping people cryogenically frozen as collateral for their families’ loans.  It’s a creepy idea, and we don’t delve too deeply into the moral or psychological implications, but it is where we find our love-interest, Abigail.  Her family may be poor, but she has the rich, golden voice of classical singer Katherine Jenkins.

Part of what I like about the episode is how carefully it’s balanced.  There’s imminent screaming danger, but there’s also cold grimness, and both are countered by the silly joyfulness of the Doctor’s wild Christmas Eve adventures with young Kazran and Abigail — which in turn eventually sours when Kazran figures out that Abigail’s time is running out, one Christmas Eve at a time.  Just as the emotion seems about to go over the top in any direction, we begin to move into a different mood.

A holographic Amy enters briefly as the Ghost of Christmas Present and shows Sardick all the people on the cruise ship who will die unless he acts — and to push the point home, their holographs show up inside the cryogenic freezer. They’re singing, too, oblivious to the danger.

Sardick persists in his crossness, upset that the Doctor has changed his past and unwilling to make any effort for the crashing ship.  This doesn’t seem like a man who will be perturbed by his own lonely grave or by people rejoicing over his death — until the Doctor reveals that he isn’t showing any Christmas Futures to the old Sardick.  He’s brought little boy Sardick to meet his future self, which finally brings the miser to realize how close he’s come to becoming the father he always hated and feared.  It’s the perfect last twist:  it solves the problem and it provides the right amount of original cleverness into the Dickensian framework.

And from there, everything pretty well sorts itself out.  We figure out how to make the ship land, we get some snow for Christmas, and Sardick and Abigail get their last ride in a shark-drawn carriage at long last.  It’s ridiculously silly, and I loved it.  A

* KT’s completely subjective rating of New Who Christmas Specials

“The Christmas Invasion” (2005) The newly regenerated Tenth Doctor spends most of the episode asleep.  Some great bits — Rose nervously trying to bluff the bad guys, Harriet Jones being awesome; some awful bits — the Doctor’s treatment of Harriet.  B+

“The Runaway Bride” (2006) We meet Donna Noble and spend a lot of time running.  Opinions will vary widely based on how one feels about sharp-edged early Donna; the story itself isn’t much to write home about.  B

“Voyage of the Damned” (2007) Doctor Who does a disaster move — and someone thought this would be a good Christmas story?  The less said about this, the better.  D-

The Next Doctor” (2008) Clever concept and beautiful scenes between star and guest star, but the part of the plot with the villian in it goes from not living up to its potential to full-on WTFBBQ.  B-

The End of Time 1 & 2” (2009) If this didn’t include a regeneration sequence (also, probably the longest regeneration in the show’s 47 years), it would be eminently skippable.  F

(back to the review at hand)

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