It’s generally said that Doctor Who Christmas episodes are no great shakes. I enjoyed The Christmas Invasion well enough, but years of giant cybermen and Kylie-In-Space disappointments haven’t made festive Who essential viewing. Oh sure, we’ll tune in, because we’re obsessed. But expectations have been generally low.
The first teasers of A Christmas Carol hinted that Matt Smith and Moffat’s first Christmas might be something special. Clearly a variation on the well-worn Dickensian story, Michael Gambon took played a version of Scrooge on a human colony a couple of thousand years in the future.
How does this become The Doctor’s business? Well, the space cruiser Amy Pond and Rory are honeymooning on is about to crash into the city that Gambon’s character, Kazran Sardick, controls. And by controls, he has a machine that maintains the strange clouds that sit above the city – unless the clouds are cleared, the ship can’t land and the 4,000-odd people aboard will die.
Since Sardick is a callous old miser, he’s happy for the passengers and crew to perish. It’s up to The Doctor to find a way to convince him to open up the skies. A swift bit of psychological profiling later, and our friend in the tweed jacket has worked out that Sardick isn’t as evil as he pretends to be. And with the help of a ‘Christmas carol’ hint from outside, he decides to harness the Dickens story to turn Sardick’s life around and make him a nicer person.
This involves playing the long game, but within an hour-long format. The ship will crash within an hour, but The Doctor uses the TARDIS to go back into Sardick’s past and change his life experiences. After a nail-biting encounter with a cloud shark, we get to meet Abagail – a young woman from a pauper’s family who’s been frozen as ‘security’ on a loan taken out by her family. Sardick and The Doctor begin waking her on Christmas Eve of each year to give her one day of fun.
Meanwhile, Amy and Rory are reduced to a one-dimensional honeymooners gag – dressed in their costumes from last series. Amy gets a brief scene as a hologram/ghost of Christmas past, but that’s about it. You won’t mind this though, because the rest of the episode is loaded with brilliance.
It’s the mad little touches – The Doctor appearing via chimney, finally destroying his psychic paper with a huge lie, possibly marrying Marilyn Monroe after a hectic Hollywood party. Matt Smith is brilliantly demented from start to finish. And the story itself manages to lean heavily on the original Christmas carol concept, while using all The Doctor’s tricks.
Many reviewers have pointed out that the stakes in this episode were much smaller than in previous years – no planets/universes/reality in danger of being snuffed out. Not this time. Just a crashing ship, which isn’t even in our thoughts most of the way through the episode.
The heart of the story is the transformation of Kazran Sardick. I like how the character of Abagail was given a different dimension just by Kazran getting to know her. Initially, she’s a frozen financial asset. But when her casket is opened, she becomes a real person and Sardick develops a wonderful affection for her.
Unusually – since I thought Moffat’s episodes in series five were among the worst – A Christmas Carol was wonderfully emotional, cleverly written and tremendously entertaining. The notion of The Doctor having a temporary pair of companions was great, especially considering the frantic pace at which he must have completed eight days of Christmas! Katherine Jenkins acquitted herself brilliantly in her first acting role. Doesn’t hurt that she’s very easy on the eye and was required to sing as part of her role.
And I have to give Steven Moffat his dues for not taking the easy route and saving Abagail in the end. Russell T Davies would almost certainly have wiped the clouds from the sky, given them a device for communicating with the fish and cured whatever disease was killing Abagail. It was that very real constraint for Abagail – that her next day would be her last – that made this episode so poignant and touching.
Cracking episode – as we can say only at Christmas. Only surpassed by the trailer for series six! We’ll talk about that one tomorrow!