When Steven Moffat took over masterminding Doctor Who, he said his vision of the show was more akin to a fairy tale. For my money, tonight's Christmas special was the closest he's ever come to achieving that goal. Spoilers ahead!
"A Christmas Carol" might be the second-best piece of Doctor Who Moffat's ever done, after "Blink." Something about borrowing the idea, and structure, of Dickens' famous story was really good for Moffat. Particularly with the focus on one character, Kazran Sardick, and how his encounters with the Doctor change him. It's a more character-focused piece than Moffat's done before, and despite some plot holes that require you to turn off your brain even more than usual, it mostly works really well.
There's a certain poetry in a good fairy tale — more than just a story about creatures or people, a good fairy tale says something about the way life is. There are choices, and riddles, and lessons, and mistakes. A good fairy tale has a good dose of nastiness as well as a strong, concentrated dose of the stuff all stories are made of. Like anything poetic, a fairy tale needs to be true as well as a myth.
The story of Kazran Sardick feels suitably poetic, wrapped around the idea that he, like Christmas, is "halfway out of the dark." Sardick is a miser (why don't we use that word more often? It's a good word!) on a far-off planet with a deadly cloud layer. Thanks to his dad's technology, he controls the clouds, which are full of dangerous fish. And he won't let a spaceship containing 4,000 people — including the Doctor's companions Amy and Rory — land safely through the cloud layer because there's nothing in it for him.
So the Doctor takes it upon himself to become the "Ghost of Christmas Past" and teach Sardick a lesson about caring for other people. He does this by traveling back in time to when Sardick was a little kid, and showing him the best Christmas Eve ever — several times over.
Watching Matt Smith clown around (Falling down the chimney, joking about Santa Claus, babbling about big flashy lighty things) I got the usual goosebumps at seeing how well he embodies the mad time traveler we've all come to love. But I think what really hooked me about this episode was the scene where the Doctor shows Sardick his own past via a video recording — and then the Doctor is in the recording, and Sardick is watching a childhood memory he doesn't quite remember, until he does.
We've had the Doctor changing history before — but this is the first time someone's ever watched the Doctor changing his own past. It's such a barmy idea, it transcends the mechanics of time-travel and mind-wiping, and becomes actually poetic. The memories are being rewritten as time is rewritten, but Old Sardick is actually watching his own past change in realtime. It's very weird stuff. (I feel like I've seen it before in comics, but I can't remember where right now.)
And they meet a flying shark and befriend it, after it swallows half the Doctor's sonic screwdriver! Who would have predicted that a flying shark would be a vital ingredient in a great Christmas story, as well as the improbable device for resolving the plot in the end.
And then a third person enters the Doctor and Young Sardick's Christmas Eve revels — Abigail, played by opera singer Katherine Jenkins. She's time-traveling in her own way, getting woken up only one day a year from suspended animation so she can spend the day with Kazran. She experiences time as a succession of Christmases, one after the other, with no other days in between. (With lots and lots of fun silliness — the middle part of the story is just an increasingly silly romp, with flying-shark Santa, pyramids, almost Bakerishly long scarves, Brat Pack antics and a wedding to Marilyn!) And soon enough, Sardick falls in love with her, and her beatific attitude towards him doesn't really change.
Abigail's really more of a device in the story than a character, in many ways — the only time she really expresses a desire is when she wants to spend Christmas Eve with her own family, instead of cavorting off to other worlds and historical periods with the Doctor and Kazran. And her story doesn't really make tons of sense if you think about it too much. (Why does the Doctor notice the countdown thingy? Why is there a countdown thingy in the first place, since the purpose of the freezing coffin is just to keep her suspended until her family can pay the loan? What kind of incompetent miser would accept a terminally ill person as security on a loan anyway? Etc. etc.) Plus various people on Twitter have been describing Abigail's story as the most literal manifestation of the "women in refrigerators" trope ever — except that there's no violence at least, and her story works if you think of it purely as a fairytale device: the frozen maiden who can only wake up one day a year, and only for a limited number of days.
Actually, the Doctor does notice the countdown thingy — and it's possible that he deliberately sets Kazran up for heartbreak. He hears Kazran saying that Abigail is "nobody important," early on, and makes his big speech about how he's never met anybody who wasn't important. So then he decides to make sure Kazran gets to know Abigail when he's younger and more impressionable, and then has to lose her when she dies after the countdown runs out. (The Doctor even remarks something about her having a lot of doctors, but then lets it slide instead of delving.) The Doctor wants to teach Kazran a lesson — and he's using Abigail just as much as Kazran's dad was, when he put her into suspended animation in the first place. (Although the Doctor certainly acts like he doesn't know what's going on, when Kazran tells him he doesn't want to see him again. Times have changed, but "not as much as I'd hoped," the Doctor remarks, seemingly baffled.)
But if the Doctor set up Kazran's heartbreak on purpose, that would explain why the Doctor looks so grim and remorseful for a moment, at the end of the episode when he's reunited with Amy. He's realizing just how cruel he's been to Kazran, to get him to change his mind about releasing Amy's ship from the cloud layer. (Of course, that would still be true if the Doctor had only been inadvertently cruel, without realizing what he was doing.)
Michael Gambon gets some amazing material as Kazran, and he makes the most of it — as I said in my preview post, I'm reminded of his incredible turn in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. He's utterly horrible and heartless as Kazran, taking great joy in slinging around lines like "that's a sort of landing, isn't it?" And then he sort of melts watching his younger self grieve over a dying shark that was trying to eat him. But he still fights it and stays a hard-ass, and you sort of see him trying to sift his "original" memories from the ones the Doctor's given him. And then watching Old Kazran weeping and holding Young Kazran is just such a powerful moment, it's almost impossible not to get choked up. Thanks to Gambon's performance and Moffat's more than usually focused writing, Kazran Sardick becomes one of the more memorable characters in Doctor Who's history, without ever departing from the Scrooge model.
Even though Kazran reconnects with his younger, more open-hearted self and realizes that the "surplus population" frozen in his basement really are people who matter, it's not enough to change his heart. As in the Dickens story, he has to be confronted with the ghosts of Christmas Present — Amy and all the people on the doomed spaceship, singing Carols as they plunge to their deaths — and Future — his own younger self, seeing what a monster he'll become. The final twist, where the Doctor brings Young Kazran forward in time, is something I genuinely didn't see coming, and it's a really nifty way to bring the story full circle — with Old Kazran about to hit a child, and facing a decision point of just how much like his father he'll become.
Oh, a couple of other random things: The lens flare in the scenes on the starship's bridge was a hilarious shout-out to J.J. Abrams' Star Trek. And the thing about the controls to Sardick's cloud-controlling machine being "isomorphic" was a nice callback to "The Pyramids of Mars." I love that the Doctor dismisses the line he fed Sutekh as being complete twaddle — only to be proved wrong.
This story, under the surface, is dealing with some pretty weighty shit for a fluffy Christmas special. The idea of child abuse, and its role in turning Kazran into such a bastard, is touched on a lot but never mentioned. And then there's the pervasive sense that Kazran has become abusive, not to any one child but to an entire planet full of people whose loved ones he's sticking in his voluminous basement and holding for ransom. (Of course, Kazran being a Moffat villain, he's not that formidable — for example, he doesn't try to have the Doctor arrested — or shot — after the Doctor first breaks into his house, like most normal people would.)
I guess, apart from the stuff about Abigail, I do have a couple of nitpicks — first, given how large Kazran's father looms in the story, I kept waiting for him to turn up again. How exactly does Elliot Kazran respond to the fact that a mysterious weirdo keeps kidnapping his son every Christmas Eve? Does Kazran Senior just never notice? I was sort of waiting for a confrontation between the Doctor and Kazran's father, and it never arrives.
And the other nitpick does have to do with the way time travel is portrayed here — apparently, the Blinovitch Limitation Effect has been abolished for good, something which will only matter to handful of fans. (As recently as "Father's Day," Rose was not supposed to touch Baby Rose, or bad things would happen. Now, apparently, it's all good.) In general, though, I feel as though Moffat's version of time travel on Doctor Who is creeping ever closer to the idea he satirized in "The Curse of the Fatal Death," in which you can do almost anything, with no limits. It makes the Doctor a good deal more godlike — it's like power inflation in superhero comics, where Superman used to leap over tall buildings, and now he can tow planets through space.
All in all, though, this was a real treat, and some of the best pure storytelling Doctor Who's had in ages. Moffat's tendency to play with cris-crossing timelines contributes to a really strong story, which delivers on the "fairy tale" promise, with a really indelible story that focuses on one character.
So what did you think?
Oh, and here's the suitably epic season six trailer: