Sunday, 26 December 2010

Doctor Who A Christmas Carol or A story of Faith, Hope and Charity

Warning, normally I don't give anything away integral to the plot, but this time I'm going to have to drop several huge spoilers to get through this. If you haven't watched this, don't read past this first paragraph .Well thank you very much Steven Moffat, for once The Doctor isn't stopping the utter destruction of London or the enslavement of all Earth by some evil race of slugs bent on forcing us to do the laundry for them. No running along in white BBC corridors screaming as death dealing Sontarans try to exterminate a group of tobacconists in South London for all their Rothman's special filter fags. No, for once we get a sweet story about Christmas for the entire family. Now before you rush off thinking it's a saccharine drizzled exercise in sentimentality, remember This is the Lord Thy God Steven Moffat. The choices are not easy and the Doctor is not infallible. The conclusions are not obvious and you will not be left unmoved by this episode. What you'll like is how the central premise and drama are wrapped in the familiar and comforting imagery of Dickens and the Victorian era. The story however moves quickly to a level that is as interesting as the three ghosts  but different.  Well acted by Laurence Belcher playing the young Scrooge central character and the always outstanding Micheal Gambon , most famous for having a part of the Top Gear Gear test track named after him and possibly for being Dumbledor, the story unfolds in a setting you will recognize without being too jaded. Dame Katherine Jenkins fills out the cast nicely as the central pivot on which all turns, and she sings an entirely new song written by Who music boffin Murray Gold. Speaking of the music, it was as traditional as you can get and comforting to boot, the entire episode is about Hope, Charity and the milk of Human kindness. A good way to spend an hour and the first Doctor Who Christmas Special worthy of the name in quite some time.

Listen to Murray Gold's song as sung by Dame Katherine Jenkins.

And now if you don't want to have the story ruined, I recommend you look away now till after you've watched this excellent hour of telly. 

Still reading? Brilliant, so I bet you noticed the passing resemblance in the opening sequence of the ship crashing to the surface and certain death if Gambon ( Scrooge ) doesn't open the cloud cover screen, to the starship Enterprise command deck . While it was amusing to see Arthur and Karen dressed up in role playing gear for their honeymoon, I must confess to an almost complete inability to make out a word they said. Not only were they essentially relegated to the side lines for most of the ep, but their involvement was a bit forced and hardly raising the jeopardy any more than the 4000 other passengers singing traditional Christmas carols were already doing. Gambon's deliciously nasty Scrooge/Kazran Sardick was biting and cynical without appearing even a bit disingenuous or unreal. The fact he is the epitome of greed is not lost on the Doctor and appeals to his own fascination with the Dickens novella he confesses to being one of his favourite.  Matt Smith manically runs around at the beginning rabbiting on about all sorts, at one point saying "Give me time and a crayon" while he tries to figure out what's happening and coming up with a game plan. 

It's when the Doctor understands that whatever is bothering Scrooge is in his deep past, that the story really starts. The core question of the ep becomes do you think the Doctor is right in adding memories and experiences to the Scrooge character's life in the hope of changing him and his ways. In the Dickens story, Scrooge is hoyed around by  three ghosts from his youth through to the possible future, but never is anything ever added to alter the man who must take the choice to be good on his own. But here our favourite Time Lord is not shy about deciding to give the junior Scrooge the benefit of a better more rounded and less sheltered existence. There are consequences even at the best of times, but clearly the Doctor doesn't try very hard to find out why Abigail has volunteered to be frozen for eternity. But it wouldn't be very Dickensian if the heroine of the piece wasn't deathly ill, choosing to live as long as possible then choosing to live well in the short time she has left. Or to quote The Doctor at the end, "Better a broken heart, than no heart at all".

The reason you watch this one is not to see if the Doctor convinces Karzan to help rescue the crashing ship, it's obvious he'll succeed, no , it's to see the end game of his plan. Will it make things worse, or is he only leading Gambon's character to the same place he was at the beginning of the ep, but by a different route, thus showing that even Time Lords are stifled by what could only be described as fate and destiny. In the end, the Doctor's actions are neither clear or morally justified. If anything, it's the power of love to overcome all and the healing touch of Abigail letting Karzan understand why he resisted Christmas and her for so long. His heart is finally softened  not by his near violent encounter with himself, though it helps mightily, but by Abigail telling him it's OK to let her die, she enjoyed her time,  happy it was always Christmas Eve with her beloved.

The pay off is seeing Gambon and Jenkins winging their way through the settlement skies pulled by the tame shark one last time. It's a testament to the quality of the story that I wasn't doubled over laughing at the thought of seeing Futurama's retribution inflicting Robot Santa burning small children and pummelling thieves and those who grassed them out in my mind. Ok I did anyway, but only for a second. So did you buy the flying fish? Doctor Who has never been strong on actual theoretical science, but for once it was based on postulated life forms one might find on other planets even within our own solar system. I did however have a hard time buying into the sudden transformation of Clyde from man eating shark to Rudolf the not so killer great white shark. At most, the bit of sonic screwdriver would given the beast a case of indigestion. As a device to add a bit of Crimbo fun it works if you don't think too hard about it, Doctor Who is still after all  officially described as a children's programme. By that qualification and the fact it's a Christmas ep on at 6 pm , you can forgive a lot, after all , we accepted a sarcastic mechanical dog for years.

 Some of the best scenes worked well because of the very idea of what was happening. When for example the Doctor goes back to a 12 year old Karzan, you know it's a recording, but because it never happened before, it's happening Now and in the past and the old Karzan is flooded by new "old" memories he knows can't be real, and yet they are. The other really touching bit of acting is when Abigail kisses Karzan to let him him know just how she feels and to say good bye when she knows there will likely be no more Christmas Eves ever again. Time travelling love has been done before and this was among some of the best.

Some other outstanding lines from the ep include ... "it's either this, or go to a room and design a new kind of screwdriver. Don't make my mistakes!" , "You know what boys say in the face of danger, don't you? Mummy!", and of course the opening narration by Michael Gambon is very nice when he explains how we are Halfway through the darkness and why we humans have always celebrated that as a way to pat ourselves on the back for having made it. Tell me honestly how you can be left unmoved by "On every world, wherever people are, in the deepest part of the winter, at the exact mid-point, everybody stops and turns and hugs. As if to say, well done. Well done everyone.We're halfway out of the dark." . BTW Did you know Santa's real name is Jeff? I wonder if he's related to the moustachioed Geoff over at Top Gear? 

Props wise, other wise known as marketing, we saw plenty of Fezes and bow-ties, because as we all know, Fezes are cool and bow-ties are just as canny. At one point there was even a Tom Baker Scarf moment, so the travel montages were not just filler, but well researched and designed to press buttons in fandom. The other refreshing aspect of the story is the clear decision to carry on from the long standing support of and continued participation of Doctor Who in the BBC Proms series, with operatic music as the style of choice. Murray Gold in the Who Confidential immediately after the ep, reveals the track used in the final cut recorded by Dame Katherine Jenkins was a rough demo that made most finished polished works by current pop stars look like the weak efforts they are. Doctor Who is promoting quality and genuine singing over the screeching of Simon Cowell acolytes who are depending entirely on good looks and self correcting recording tools. Extra tidbit Who fans, Galli Base mate Patrick tells me that in "Doctor Who Decalog 3: Consequences"? Steven Moffat had a story included in that collection of short stories, called "Continuity Errors." Yes, the story had Silvester McCoy's Doctor, but the plot of "A Christmas Carol" was taken wholesale from that tale, and dressed up for Christmas. With sharks.

Will I watch this again? Honestly????? Yes . if only to have the closed captioning for the on ship dialogue and to finally wrap my head around the the idea of time meddling in the very creation of a person's life choices and attitudes. Going as far back as the Daleks, the Doctor has had a hard time wiping out entire species and people if he thinks they can be reformed. The inner do-gooder in this Galifreyan has time and again got in the way of a perfectly justifiable execution or extinction. Tonight's reaction was no different viewed in the context off his long history of seeing the best in even the most vile of creatures and races across space and time.

As one of many bits of telly on offer this Christmas season, the DW Crimbo special succeeded as both a  seasonal traditional programme heavily steeped in the music and meaning of the Holiday and as a sci fi story asking the sorts of questions we have come to expect from Doctor Who.

To watch the ep on the iPlayer  or to read more about Doctor who


Gareth said...

Agreed - a splendid piece of Christmas telly: one of the best Doctor Who eps, I'd even go so far to say. Loved Gambon's bitter response to the Doctor's "better a broken heart..." line ("Try it, just try it!") and the twist of the Ghost of Christmas Future scene ("Everyone dies cold and alone. Show me what I become...")worked a treat.

Chris David Richards said...

A fantastic episode. Full of ideas.