Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol
Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol is a delight right from the opening shot – which, wonderfully, is most decidedly not Earth (or Earth Orbit, or New Earth). Non-earth stories are far too rare when the entirety of the universe is at the Doctor’s disposal. Further, it takes place on a wildly imaginative new world. The flying fish are a wonderful spark of whimsy, the shark is a good monster (despite so-so effects), and the steampunk design and smoky atmosphere are fantastic. This is why it's so exciting to have this show with modern f/x and a decent budget -- we can actually see these amazing ideas. Even if the story was weak, the magnificent world it’s set on would make it involving and worthwhile.
But the story is very good, indeed. After the awesome Star Trek-ish prologue, we descend onto this fantastic world to the strains of Sir Michael Gambon’s narration, and he’s as magnificent as ever. His character of Kazreen is a bit too Scroogish without Scrooge’s flashes of humanity, but Gambon plays it to the hilt, and it’s certainly fun to watch. The mysteries raised by the girl in ice draw us in even more, and then Smith drops in, and everything gets even more delightful as he charms his way through about six hilarious monologues without missing a beat.
Kazreen is pretty cartoonish on the page – he’s even more of a charicature than Dicken’s Scrooge. How could anyone be that callous? But Gambon gives him dimension, and the dialogue between him and Smith is just magic. I especially love the way Smith announces, “These controls are isomorphic.”
Doctor: Who’s she?
Kazreen: Nobody important.
Doctor: Blimey, that’s amazing. Do you know, in 900 years in time and space I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before.
Kazreen: I’m Kazreen Sardin. How could you possibly not know who I am?
Doctor: Well, just easily bored, I suppose.
After this, we get fish who fly in fog (and, of course, a shark who does the same), which again is exactly what we should be getting with today’s technology. If they could create a sense of awe and wonder in 1963 on a budget of pocket lint, they should be blowing our brains out the backs of our skulls every episode with today’s money and tech. This is that exactly: sheer wonder and imagination. It’s truly beautiful.

Then the story starts in earnest, and it’s another of Stephen Moffat’s yarns that actually use the Doctor’s ability to time travel as he attempts to rewrite Kazreen’s life. It’s a great conceit that plays out not only cleverly, but with great poignancy. It is, of course, a sci-fi riff on A Christmas Carol, but it plays out in an utterly original way. Moffat’s interpretation of showing Kazreen the future is simply brilliant (even if he then flagrantly violates the Blinovitch Limitation Effect in the process, but the Doctor is a Time Lord, after all, so surely he knows how to get around little rules like that). The ending is pretty obvious, but it’s still touching.

Unfortunately, the 45-minute format is way too tight for the kinds of ambitious stories Doctor Who tends to do, and even with an extra 15 mintues, this is no exception. Sure, there are great 45-minute stories, but this needed the extra time. At 90 minutes, it would have not only had more time to flesh out Faux-Scrooge and make his cold callousness more credible, but it would have more importantly had some time for Abigail, who gets virtually no development beyond being a good singer with a nice smile. Worse is her family, who are virtually non-entities. Further, why would she spend quite so much of her short time alive with these two bizarre strangers instead of her family?
The rush to get to the end within the time limit also creates a lot of plot holes because there’s not time to allow it to make any sense. Characters say they have five minutes to accomplish something, then clearly take half an hour to do it. The Doctor brings up the subject of the counter, then gets distracted (which is fair in itself), and then never thinks to mention it again. Abigail is good “collateral” even though she only has eight days to live.
And further, the entire ship crashing subplot never really works. Outside of Amy and Rory, we don’t care about anyone on the ship, and there’s so little of it that the danger never feels real or convincing. Never in the episode is there a convincing sense of danger or real intensity.
With more characterization and a more relaxed paced, this story could have been intensely moving. Moffat has created some of the most moving stories in the history of the show, but with the rush, this one was just sorta touching. There have been a few great episodes packed into that time space, but this isn’t one of them.
Still, the first 25 minutes are pure genius, and the rest is consistently entertaining and beautifully made. It isn’t the classic it could have been, but it’s fun, it’s joyous, it's wildly imaginative, and it’s absolutely gorgeous.

And it’s not on Earth! It's the greatest Christmas present would could have! Cheers!
* * *


  • During the 7th – 9th seasons (1970-1972), the Doctor was stranded by the Time Lords on Earth, in one time and place. Even then, without a working TARDIS, the Doctor managed to get off-world for the majority of four out of fourteen stories (~28.5 %). Since the revival in 2005, he has been off-world for the majority of ten out of fifty-six stories (~17.8 %).
  • Amy and Rory in the cop and Roman costumes on their honeymoon. Awesome.
  • Even though it isn't as powerful as it should be, the singing of "Silent Night" is still quite a lovely scene.
  • I just want to reiterate that although the fate of Abigail is far too obvious too soon (and should have been noticed by the Doctor), the "showing the future" scene really did take me off-guard with its cleverness.
  • I love the climax resulting from the Doctor's plan working so spectacularly that it actually backfires. That's just the greatest.
  • I started watching Doctor Who in April, and didn't watch the episodes going on then until several months later, so this was the first episode I caught on TV. It's also the first episode to be shown here in America at the same time as it's shown in Britain.

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