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Doctor Who - A Christmas Carol

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Release Date: 
2 Entertain
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Directed by: 
Toby Haynes
Matt Smith
Karen Gillan
Arthur Darvill
Sir Michael Gambon
Katherine Jenkins
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“Gimme some Spock, just this once – would it kill ya?” It’s hard not to remember with a fond smile, from way back in 2005, Rose Tyler’s jokey rebuke of the Doctor’s sometimes rather un-techy, homespun approach to saving the Universe on a weekly basis, as opposed to the methods of gleaming, futuristic sophistication embodied in the world of modern science fiction she’d grown up consuming along with the rest of us, the fans who recognise this witticism as writer Steven Moffat’s way of referencing the days, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when “Doctor Who” fought to survive on a meagre BBC budget, in a world increasingly glamoured by the marvel of “Star Wars” and other expensive science fiction wonders. 

It was a battle the show appeared eventually to lose, until Russell T. Davies’ triumphant 2005 resurrection brought it roaring back to life with a vengeance. Rose’s amusing ‘Spock quote’ appeared back in Steven Moffat’s very first episode for the revitalised format, “The Empty Child. Five years later, and having been passed the baton marked ‘show runner’ by a departing Russell T., Moffat finds himself tasked with authoring and overseeing the production of what has since become possibly the BBC’s most high profile piece of Christmas day ‘event’ programming: the Doctor Who Christmas Special.

The very first of these annual extravaganzas was made rather more special through -- out of necessity -- also having to serve as a regeneration story for David Tennant’s eagerly anticipated debut in the role of the Doctor. Since then, over the course of RTD’s stewardship, the Christmas Day Special has come increasingly to represent Davies’ instinct for grand, visually epic stories, which have competed to out-do so each other over the years in spectacular images and action-orientated narratives; from the holiday disaster movie pastiche of “Voyage of the Damned” to the weighty, highly overwrought stand-off between the Doctor, the Master and the Time Lords in “The End of Time”, Davies showed that, while it might not exactly compete still with the modern Hollywood “Avatar” level of blockbuster (made on a budget equivalent to the GDP of a small country), “Doctor Who” could -- at least once a year -- finally put enough real money on the screen to exist in the same ballpark as the  big boys.  

Now it is Steven Moffat’s turn to ‘give us some Spock’ – and for the first few minutes of “A Christmas Carol” he does exactly that … literally! In what feels almost like a gently satirical dig at RTD’s over-fondness for epic storylines involving the Doctor single-handedly piloting crippled star-ships to safety, the episode commences with the most Enterprisey of luxury starships imaginable, plunging helplessly towards oblivion through the crystalline cloud layer of a remote colony planet, while a crew peopled by stock characters very obviously drawn from the Star Trek Universe, prove themselves utterly powerless to prevent imminent disaster.

This feels almost as if it is meant to signal that, this year, the extravagant, glossy, high-tech approach is out. This year a rather gangly, shambolic bloke with a police box, who bumbles through the Universe with all the dexterity and coordination of Elbert Einstein transplanted into the body of Basil Fawlty, is going to save the day through rather more fantastical, darkly poetical means than usual, derived from the literature of his friend, Charles – Charlie boy! – Dickens.

The opening gambit is the set-up to one of the most unusual, outlandish and ambitious episodes the series has ever attempted. In a way, it feels more like a stand-alone episode than usual, as though it’s somehow divorced entirely from the rest of the Whoniverse and takes place in a special Christmassy alternative dimension where the normal rules governing the Doctor’s conduct with regard to changing history (which, let’s face it, have never exactly been what one might call ‘consistent’) have flown out of a window on fairy wings, trailing tinsel and shiny baubles as they go, and the Blimovitch Limitation Effect (come on, keep up!) holds no sway.  

It’s also the most ravishingly beautiful episode of “Doctor Who” ever made, without doubt – and you’d have to be the most scrooge-like of scrooge-like scrooges not to be moved at the very end, when Katherine Jenkins, singing composer Murray Gold’s frankly heart breaking winter carol (especially composed for the show – I’m counting the days until the download becomes available), causes it to snow on Sardicktown for the first time. It brings a tear to my eye just typing it – and after the last few months, I bloody hate snow!!

This most Christmassy of Christmas specials begins, then, with a huge Starship, flying blind through the impenetrable ice clouds of Sardicktown, and about to crash – instantly killing the thousand-and-three people on board; and wouldn’t you know it, two of them are a newly-married Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill), who happen to be occupying the honeymoon suite.  The planet’s inhabitants are colonists from Earth, who live in a society that looks like a bustling, Blade Runner-esque mashup of fantastical 19th century peasant cultures -- or a futuristic, nautical model of a Dickensian city, illuminated in neon and bolted together from rusting space hulks. Freezing fogginess permeates the air, through which shoals of airborne fish that usually live in the ice clouds, have been known to swim. The whole place is run by a reclusive miser called Kazran Sardick (Sir Michael Gambon), a money lender who freezes one member of the family of each of his clients so that he can keep them as security, placing them in suspended animation in a vault until their family debt is paid off.

It happens to be Christmas on Sardicktown -- an old winter custom from Earth, still celebrated by the impoverished populace, but despised by Kazran Sardick himself, who rules the skies with the aid of a vast antiquated-looking machine that looks like an old church organ, designed when he was a boy by his fearsome father to respond only to Kazran’s touch. The machine controls the level of the cloud banks, and therefore the more threatening forms of amphibious life that live in them; by this method, Kazran also controls the population, who have to depend on him as he determines the level to which the cloud-dwelling man-eating sharks may descend in order to feed.

Yes, this is a topsy-turvy world where the vast unknowable depths of the ocean has become the sky, and in which giant sharks fly through the foggy air of an alien planet modelled on a Christmassy Victorian design, controlled by an embittered Scrooge figure using a church-organ-mimicking machine. No one can accuse the Moff of lacking imagination on this one!

The Doctor lands on the planet surface (making his entrance by tumbling down the chimney in the money lender’s vast study) to ask Kazran to use his peculiar machine to dissipate the cloud banks for long enough to allow the space cruiser to land safely and avert the impromptu termination of Amy and Rory’s honeymoon with large-scale death and destruction, but he finds the rich old cove less than amenable to persuasion.

However, when one of the children of a poor family who have come to Kazran’s house at Christmas time to see the their frozen relative in her coffin-like vault, mischievously throws a lump of coal at his head, the miser’s initial reaction -- which is to strike the child -- is mysteriously withheld at the last moment. The Doctor, witnessing this small act of mercy, senses that there is hope yet for Kazran’s hobbled soul; that, rather than being evil or truly bad, something must have gone wrong somewhere, sometime in his past, diverting him from his true nature, to turn him into this cold and embittered old man. Rather than bringing down Kazran and his one-man empire, the Doctor decides to take a cue from his old pal Dickens (see “The Unquiet Dead”) and become the Ghost of Christmas past. Using time travelling jiggery pokery of the most devious nature, the Time Lord attempts to show this Kazran Sardick the error of his ways. But, of course, things don’t necessarily go according to plan …

The series’ overt shift towards fairy tale motifs with the arrival of the eleventh Doctor and the introduction of companion Amy Pond, along with the more fantasy based style of story noticeably favoured by Steven Moffat since he became the series show runner at the same time – much in contrast to the more down-to-earth ‘aliens on council estates’ tone of the Russell T. Davies era -- reaches its zenith with this sumptuously rendered, almost dreamlike Christmas tale full of bizarre, fantastical details and wild flights of fantasy. The most immediately striking thing is just how bold and incredibly cinematic the episode looks. Apparently, it cost less to make than any of the previous Christmas specials, but the dark fantasy aesthetic of the set design (courtesy of veteran production designer Michael Pickwoad, who will also be working on the forthcoming series) and the vibrancy of the luscious photography, really allow “Doctor Who” to finally look like the true, richly realised Tim Burton-style escape into a never-never land of the impossible -- full of lurking nightmares but also the evocative, beguiling  possibility of dreams fulfilled – it was clearly aspiring towards throughout series five.

This episode looks as impressive and as convincing as anything in modern fantasy cinema, from Philip Pullman's “The Golden Compass” to the work of Burton himself. Kazran Sardick’s vast chamber-like study (more than a hint of “Citizen Kane” in the way director Toby Haynes stages the initial shots of it), floods the screen with blooming Christmas colours framed in inky darkness -- despite the miser’s hatred of the time of year, the green-tinted walls and red velvet curtains offer a rich contrast to the winter blue of the makeshift, thrown-together shanty town and the foggy Victoriana-underworld outside Sardick’s heavy doors. The CGI work of The Mill continues to stagger, and considering the bizarre nature of some of the images they had to create for this episode -- such as an airborne Santa-style sleigh-ride through the ice-clouds, mimicked via a flying shark pulling the Doctor & friends in a rickshaw across the heavens – they’ve pulled off wonders, and brought Moffat’s outlandish narrative conceits to life more convincingly than we’ve ever seen done before. Add to this an absolutely blistering performance by Matt Smith -- who now seems so at home in the role of the tweed-clad Doctor, it feels like he’s always been him – playing opposite the wonderfully gravelly and full-bodied, rich-toned phrasing of Sir Michael Gambon (for whom such roles as Sardick are tailor-made), and the effortlessly angelic Katherine Jenkins, and you have the makings of a true classic.

But none of this would count for much if it weren’t for the genius that lurks behind Steven Moffat’s wonderfully imaginative story. The title and the central premise make clear enough the intent to present this as a truly Dickens influenced Christmas tale, even though it takes place on another (very strange) world -- with the Doctor specifically setting out to achieve the objective of making a Scrooge-like miser change his uncaring ways. It could have been horribly trite. It could also have been incredibly boring. We all know Dickens’ tale back-to-front, whether we’ve read it or not, after all. But Moffat simply takes our basic knowledge of the original story of Scrooge and Tiny Tim et al for granted, and proceeds to contort and manipulate the framework of it into something as fantastical and wildly unpredictable as has ever been presented for the show.

The episode seems particularly packed with evocative ideas: If skies filled with fish shoals and man-eating sharks isn’t crazy enough for you, how about the Doctor unthinkingly terrifying not just the young Kazran, but probably half the under-eights watching the show as well, with his throwaway mention of the existence of ‘face-spiders’ – apparently,  a type of spider with a baby’s head, that creeps into your mattress while you’re asleep (we’ve really got to see these in the future, Mr Moffat!). The strangest and probably most controversial thing in the story, though, is the way in which the time travel aspect of Dickens’ original tale has been adapted by the writer. Here we see the old, grouchy, rheumy eyed miser presented with sepia toned movie images from his childhood, projected onto the wall of his darkened study by the Doctor. We realise as a child he’s been horribly beaten and terrorised by his authoritarian father (Gambon himself playing the role opposite newcomer Laurence Belcher as the young Kazran); he’s also missed out on a seemingly transformative event by being off sick from school on a crucial day – the day the fish came: when unusual atmospheric conditions led to a shoal of flying fish descending on his school, filling his classmates with awe and wonder and becoming the main talking event from then on.

But the young Kazran Sardick missed it. His father sees the fish and the mysterious ocean of ice and cloud that boils in the heavens, merely as a way of controlling the population and thereby maintaining his power over it – this is the inheritance (along with limitless financial wealth) he plans for his son. The sky-ocean is presented in the story as a sort of numinous unknown, harbouring terrors such as the untamed man-eating sharks, but becoming also a source of fascination and wonder.

With Kazran’s father’s church organ machine manipulating and controlling it, I guess the phenomena  represents two possible consequences of spirituality in the story – the one the source of wonderment and emotional connection; the other a device for political control and the instilling of childhood terrors. As Kazran watches all this on screen and recalls the past that made him the man he is, the Doctor suddenly strolls into frame, behind his younger self, and addresses himself to the older Kazran watching, informing him that his presence in his childhood is going to re-write time and that Kazran will experience his memories changing and reforming while he watches!

It’s a marvellous conceit, and typical of Moffat’s propensity for crazy time travel based manipulations and contortions in his stories, coupled with wonderfully powerful storybook themes. It is also somewhat sinister. Some fans hated this story. After all, if the Doctor is allowed to rewrite history so cavalierly, flitting about through someone’s personal history to arrange things just so, why doesn’t he do this every week? It would have made “Genesis of the Daleks” a lot shorter, for a start. The Doctor literally creates a whole new life for Kazran, full of enchantment, wonder and most of all, love. One of the frozen family members in the vault, previously entombed in ice by Kazran’s father as security on an un-payable debt, is the beautiful Abigail Pettigrew (Katherine Jenkins), clad in angelic white, she also happens to have the becalming voice of a mezzo-soprano, with just the right frequency to sooth and heal a frightened shark. The Doctor then takes the two on a series of TARDIS journeys through Earth history (ending up getting himself hitched to Marilynn Monroe in the process!), reappearing every Christmas eve for this annual event, and not noticing (or pretending not to notice) that Abigail and the increasingly handsome young Kazran -- who has grown into a strapping David Copperfield-like figure by now (the Dickens character, not the cheesy magician) are falling in love.

The old Kazran is watching all this on the screen, feeling his memories realign and reform, discovering photograph albums full of pictures of events that had never occurred before this night. But there is one thing the Doctor has overlooked: Abigail was always destined for a little Nell-like early death. She was already terminally ill when she entered her icy tomb. There were only eight days of her life left, and these successive Christmas eves have used them all up. Now she has only one day left to live and Kazran is heartbroken.  Consequently, he becomes embittered and numb with regret; more embittered, in fact than if the Doctor had never intervened, and he had never loved at all!

Those fans who have questioned the morality of the Doctor’s casual retro-tinkering with a man’s whole life in this story, have I think missed the fact that it is explicitly stated in the episode that, rather than having his history irrevocably altered, Kazran is in fact being presented with a choice, and still carries his original memories of his former life without the Doctor’s intervention, alongside the new ones that have been created in an alternative time-line. It is up to him, ultimately, which memories he lets become the real ones, and whether he wants to become a different person or not. He is a man who, like the time of year being celebrated at Christmas itself, is ‘halfway out of the dark’, his better nature never having been given a chance to shine before, because of his father’s training in fear and disappointment.

The point about the Doctor’s morality, though, is addressed up front in Moffat’s script, after the Doctor’s plan to encourage Kazran’s better nature seems to go horrendously wrong with the revelation of Abigail’s imminent death. ‘I’d have never have known her if the Doctor hadn’t changed the course of my whole life to suit himself!’ Kazran bitterly wails to Amy (acting here as the Ghost of Christmas present via a hologram image from the crashing ship), and responding to the Doctor’s feeble claim that it is better to have a broken heart than no heart at all, with the barbed riposte, ‘just you try It, then!’

Moffat’s story then goes on to address a query I’ve always had about the original Dickens story that gets glossed over by the sheer poetic exuberance and fecundity  of the author’s prose style, but which often reveals itself in TV and film adaptations of the tale -- which is that there seems little reason on the face of it why merely being presented with images from one’s past, present and future should make the slightest bit of difference to a really embattled and entrenched life-long miser and misery guts. The heartbroken Kazran sums it up when the Doctor announces it is time to see what lies in store in his future . ‘Fine, do it. Show me. I’ll die cold, alone and afraid; of course I will; we all do! What difference does showing me make?’  The Doctor’s ingenious twist is to show the young, innocent and still-hopeful Kazran -- the one who cries over a wounded shark even though it wanted to eat him -- the kind of man he will become in the future: the old, heartbroken, bitter, pinched miser who cackles maliciously how he doesn’t care about anyone.

Seeing the fear and bewilderment in the eyes of himself as a child witnessing this scene, makes the elder Kazran recall his own fear of his violent father -- and helps him finally realise that he doesn’t want to be that way. It’s a powerful moment on screen thanks to the emotionally truthful performance of Michael Gambon.

Whovians have of course noted that allowing the older Kazran to hug himself as a child breaks all sorts of previously well-established time paradox rules (perhaps the fact that Kazran has effectively become a different person, to the extent that the isomorphic controls on his cloud machine no longer recognise him, works around this thorny problem though?), and that it takes at least an hour of watching new memories on old home movies to save the soul of Kazran, during which time Amy and Rory seem to be taking a mighty long time to crash – wouldn’t it have been quicker just to materialise the TARDIS on board the crashing ship and simply evacuate everyone?

No matter. This is a gorgeous-looking, emotional, clever, funny, strange and just thoroughly entertaining hour of fantasy science fiction that sets a whole new standard of excellence for the forthcoming series to live up to; a standard which, by the look of the ‘Next Time’ trailer at the end of this episode, it has every chance of matching with ease.

This DVD and Blu-ray release from 2 Entertain features the full hour-long Christmas special and – get this! – the unedited hour-long edition of the accompanying episode of Doctor Who Confidential, which features Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill in Cardiff to switch on the Christmas lights before moving on to cover the whole of the production of the Christmas Special, from read-through to the shooting and the post-production of the episode. The behind-the-scenes footage is interspersed with lots of interviews from the cast, crew, the producers, and composer Murray Gold, whose fabulous newly composed score for the episode (virtually every second of the story is scored to music, making this a particularly magical, otherworldly feeling episode) counts as one of the finest things he’s done for the show since he became its resident compose in 2005. Gold’s work gets more love in yet another hour long extra included on the disc: “Doctor Who at the Proms”, which is a simply wonderful proms concert filmed at the Royal Albert Hall in 2010, featuring Gold’s finest music from series 5; lots of monsters parading through the audience; Karen Gillan’s quirky linking pieces from the stage; and Matt Smith, in character as the Doctor, cavorting through the audience to the delight and glee of a lot of very happy children and even happier adults. It’s an absolutely joyous hour of TV. And with three hours of content included in total on this DVD (or Blu-ray) release, this is an absolute must-buy for any “Doctor Who” fan.

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