Of any given Christmas, there are certain invariable quantities: there will always be long lines, one will always consume far too much fudge and, at least since 2005, the good Doctor will appear on Christmas day to bring us the gifts of zany adventures and unbridled mirth.
And this year’s outing, aptly titled “A Christmas Carol,” was no exception. I sat down with a mug of sugar cookie eggnog (fortified with a generous volume of spiced rum) hoping for the perfect end to a very saccharine holiday – a final indulgence in something sugary to “exterminate” my sweet tooth.
Trailers for the special had intimated that a parody of the Charles Dickens favorite would be in the offing, and indeed it was – but the details were far more intriguing than we’d been led to believe. The plot revolved around a cantankerous Scrooge of sorts, one Kazran Sardick – masterfully played by Michael Gambon, who has appeared as Dumbledore in the most recent Harry Potter Films. Kazran controls the atmosphere on an unnamed planet in the year 4398, and as misfortune would have it the Doctor’s latest companion Amy Pond and her husband happen to be aboard a space cruiser in that very same atmosphere, caught in a violent storm and plummeting toward the surface below. Amy summons the Doctor for a hasty rescue, and the ever-resourceful Time Lord quickly realizes that a simple adjustment to the atmospheric controls under Kazran’s command will save the cruiser and all 4,003 people aboard. The old man is of course unmoved, and the Doctor surmises that his hardened heart will not be convinced by any appeals to compassion. He decides that he must go back in time and visit the young Kazran to discover the source of his bitter cynicism, and prevent him from becoming the cold-hearted old man he is in the present day (the ghost of Christmas past – see?).
He arrives posing as Kazran’s babysitter, and learns that the child’s dark psyche is rooted in his isolation from the world, and the tyrannical abuse of the elder Mr. Sardick. So, the Doctor introduces the lad to adventure and excitement – beginning with a close encounter with a shark from the upper atmosphere (it’s a curious quality of this planet that fish are able to “swim” in the air on weak electrical charges). Kazran also shows the Doctor a cryonic warehouse where his father stores people in suspended animation as “collateral” on loans, and they defrost a young lady named Abigail (Welsh soprano Katherine Jenkins making her television debut). The three spend an adventurous evening together, and as the night draws to a close they agree to meet again every Christmas eve for further forays into time and space – with Abigail returning to deep freeze in the interim.
The revamped Doctor Who (as opposed to its “classic” incarnation) has always appealed to me, at least, for its tendency to revel in surreal, almost nonsensical fun. The above plot synopsis should bear witness to the fact that present-day Doctor Who is immensely imaginative and, at times, even surreal. I was reminded at times during “A Christmas Carol” of Douglas Adams and his approach to science fiction, where realism takes a backseat to satire and cultural commentary. Fish swimming gracefully through the air surely isn’t great science, but it’s hard to deny the visual appeal of seeing the Doc, Abigail, and Kazran riding a shark-driven sleigh though the clouds. And though that penchant for pantomime has led to excess (mostly under former show-runner Russell T. Davies), a heaping helping of whimsy has always been welcome and entirely appropriate on Christmas. Complaining that “A Christmas Carol” is too lighthearted for science-fiction is like complaining that your candy cane is too sweet. What else would you want for the holidays?
Wisely, then, writer Steven Moffat puts an engaging plot in place but really gives his talents to the humor and character development. Matt Smith’s interpretation of the Doctor is perfect for intellectual humor and clever turns of phrase, and Moffat gives him a stuffed stocking of them. A “Christmas Carol” succeeds largely on Smith’s excellent performance; he has clearly made this part his own and put a unique finish on a character that is now nearly 50 years old. He is at once warm and affable, but tragically lonely – one of the best lines in the episode is when Kazran as a young adult, whose relationship with Abigail is blossoming into romance, asks the Doctor if he should kiss her. “It’s either that or go to your room and design a new screwdriver. Don’t make my mistakes,” the Doctor replies. And speaking of romance, I was quite impressed by the development of the touching bond between Kazran and Abigail – a tragic thread, to be sure, but one that culminates with a beautiful lesson on the timelessness that can be found in even one single day in love. Katherine Jenkins uses her full vocal talents to bring the message home in a stunning aria that finally melts Kazran’s heart, calms the skies, and saves the day. You may scoff at the treacle, but it was enough to make this old Time Lord a bit misty over missing the Amy Pond is his life, too.
When it comes to Christmas, you’re either a Tiny Time or a Scrooge. On any other day of the year, it’s perfectly acceptable to wallow in the dreary ruminations of “Battlestar Galactica” or a flick like Pandorum. But when the sleigh bells are jingling and every tree is bedecked with lights, the entertainment ought to match the merriment. From “It’s A Wonderful Life” to “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” we expect our Christmas television to be like a cozy fire on a cold winter’s night. And this year’s Doctor Who special warmed in just the right way.