“A CHRISTMAS CAROL” – Series 6, Episode 0 (Christmas Special), Story 213 – Written by Steven Moffat; Directed by Toby Haynes – The Eleventh Doctor has let Amy and Rory alone so they can go on their honeymoon, but they’ve gone and got themselves booked on a space liner that’s about to crash, so they call the Doctor for help. He shows up but can’t get on the ship because of an electrical storm in the clouds, so he lands at the apartment home of the cranky old geezer who controls the clouds. Oh, and fish live in the clouds. The geezer won’t do his part to save the ship because he’s a dick, so the Doctor schemes up a Christmas Carol-like adventure that seeks to make the old guy peachy and swell, or at least well enough to not let the 4,000 people on the ship die. Because That Would Not Make For a Merry Christmas.
Let’s start with this – to rephrase a cliche, Murray Gold’s music is so darn good he could make watching someone shopping for groceries an exhilarating experience. He really is just that fantastic and his skills are in full evidence in A CHRISTMAS CAROL, the 2010 Christmas special that serves as the bridge between Series 5 and 6. His music is perfectly suited for a show with people doing a lot of running around. With Matt Smith in particular, Gold really shines in those “information-realization-declaration-action” sequences, where the Doctor learns something, thinks on it as the camera zooms in on him just in time for him to deliver a declaration, and then explodes into frantic action.
Gold is literally so good that every time I received a Netflix DOCTOR WHO DVD in the mail that had the Series 4 preview that would run automatically, I’d watch it every single time, just for the music.
On the whole, I found A CHRISTMAS CAROL an emotionally pleasing episode that contained perhaps a tad too many of writer Steven Moffat’s beloved time travel quirks. When Moffat is using these bits at the highest level (as in THE GIRL IN THE FIREPLACE and THE ELEVENTH HOUR), it adds just the right kind of newness that can make yet another time travel story seem fresh. In FIREPLACE and ELEVENTH, Moffat had the Doctor appearing at different points in the lives of Reinette and Amy so what was seconds for him was years for them.
Moffat goes back to this bag in CAROL at one point, but it’s a minor focus of the episode and deployed in a completely different manner – before, it was semi-haphazard and largely out of his control but here it’s purposeful and known to everyone involved.
The set-up has another time travel quirk that’s a fun twist but deploys the same kind of mirror technique used in FIREPLACE as someone sits in a room and watches another time’s events unfold live; the difference here is that it’s not the Doctor and his Companions who are doing the watching, but the episode’s bad guy.
Here’s the quick plot set-up: Amy and Rory are on their honeymoon on a space cruiser which is in the process of exploding in a massive cloud, she calls the Doctor for help, he helps by trying to convince Kazran Sardick (played by Michael Gambon) to save the falling ship by opening up the clouds. In helping Sardick, who flatly refuses to save anyone because everyone has to die sometime, the Doctor pulls a really inventive time trick by literally going back into Kazran’s life and altering it for the better (he hopes). Instead of pulling the elder Kazran back with him, the Doctor has Gambon (I’m just going to call him Gambon to differentiate him from the other two Kazrans that show up) watch an old home movie that he made that the Doctor goes back in time to join.
It’s a pretty neat trick. The Doctor projects the old recording onto the wall like it’s a literal home movie and then goes back in time to enter the said scene. His interference begins to change Gambon’s life, who starts “remembering” these new sets of memories as they happen.
Gambon’s main problem is that his dad – the inventor of the system that lets him control the clouds – is an abusive dick who forced Kazran into a sheltered life lived inside the apartment. Kazran wants to see the fish that live in the clouds and come down to street level when the clouds are opened up, but his father (also played by Gambon) refuses and gives him a backhand.
As Kazran cries, the Doctor walks through his large, circular window and starts young Kazran on a new path. First, the Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver as bait to catch a fish and is then greeted by a massive shark that tries to eat him and does, in fact, eat half of the sonic screwdriver. The Doctor injures the shark in his attempt to get the screwdriver back, and Young Kazran wants to save it, which leads to him taking the Doctor down to the Frozen People Room. It’s not really called that, but that’s what it is – people cryogenically frozen in big metal “ice boxes” which contain people. Kazran tells the Doctor he’ll let Abigail Pettigrew out because her singing and her love of the fish.
This starts a new tradition of Christmas Eve adventures between Kazran, the Doctor, and Abigail, and they go on all sorts of wonderful adventures over the next handful of years: Egypt, Australia, Hollywood (where the Doctor maybe marries Marilyn Monroe). Kazran grows up and he and Abigail fall in love, but it’s a love affair with a downer of an ending. At the Hollywood party, Abigail tearfully explains to Kazran (but not us or the Doctor) what the counter means and so Kazran refuses to open up the box again as doing so will kill her.
At the start of the episode, the Doctor had seen Abigail’s ice box in Gambon’s apartment as Abigail’s family begged for her to be let out for the night. He refused. Kazran, like his father, uses the frozen people as collateral – he lends money to families and takes one of them as insurance of the loan being returned. In the original timeline, Gambon won’t let Abigail out because he’s not emotionally swayed but in the revised life of Kazran, he won’t let her out because she only has one day left to live.
What? Yeah, it doesn’t really make any sense to me, but for Dramatic Purposes there’s a counter on the ice box and every time Abigail is let out, the number goes down another day.
Kazran becomes emotionally cold without his yearly jaunt with Abigail, turning into the same miserable man he was before. When Amy shows up as a holographic projection to play Ghost of Christmas Present, Gambon is unmoved by her efforts to save the 4,000 people aboard the space liner. He explains Abigail’s condition to Amy and she’s sorry, but tells him that Abigail’s one day remaining is more time left to live than the people on the ship.
Gambon is still unmoved and tells the Doctor that showing him the future will do no good because he knows he’s going to end up cold, alone, and afraid. “Show me the future,” he challenges and the Doctor explains that he is, revealing that he’s brought the childhood Kazran into the future to see his future self. Gambon goes to strike the kid version of himself and the kid freaks, perhaps thinking his older self is actually his abusive dad. This is what finally gets Gambon to change and he agrees to help the Doctor. They go to his fancy weather controlling machine, which only he can use.
Literally, only he can use the machine because it’s isomorphically attuned to him, and now that the Doctor has altered Kazran’s life, the machine no longer recognizes him. There’s only one way to save the day, and that means letting Abigail out so she can sing. Her voice resonates with the ice crystals in the clouds which stabilizes them and allows for the space linger to regain control. Kazran doesn’t want to let her out, but he realizes it’s what has to be done and lets her out. In a touching moment, Abigail (played by Welsh singer Katherine Jenkins) calls him an “old miser” for saving her last day away all of his life. She sings, she saves the day, the Doctor gives them one last adventure by having the big shark pull them around on a flying carriage, and then dies after the credits roll. (And why the Doctor doesn’t try to save her from whatever illness she’s got isn’t something we’re supposed to think about, apparently.)
There’s lots to like about this episode, starting with Matt Smith, who manages to continually play both socially awkward (such as when he tells Kazran to “trust me, go kiss Abigail or you’ll end up sitting in your room and building a new screwdriver”) and powerfully experienced (when he tells Kazran that in 900 years of space travel, “I’ve never met someone who wasn’t important”) to great effect.
After years of seeing the Ninth Doctor’s weepy fatalism and the Tenth Doctor’s semi-frozen, eyes-watering look, Moffat smartly pushes the bulk of the emotional weight off of the Doctor and onto Gambon. I don’t mean to imply there was something wrong with those takes on the Doctors of Eccleston and Tennant, either, but it was time for a change. Smith’s Doctor will tuck his chin and think instead of staring and watering his eyes, and here the bulk of his emotional duty is just to lay the scene so Gambon and the others can react.
Smith’s ball of energy approach to the Doctor completely works for me. The start of the episode is a perfect example; while Abigail’s family is begging for one night to spend with her, the Doctor comes barreling down the chimney. He plays so well off the other people in the room and moves so quickly through his dialogue that you almost miss what he’s doing, which is gathering information to assess the situation. The Doctor comforts Abigail’s little brother, threatens Gambon, and tries to play with the cloud controlling machine Kazram’s father built.
He’s driven to not only save the 4,000 people on the ship, but Amy and Rory, too, of course, but there’s no pining for them the way the previous two Doctors would fret over Rose. It makes the episode fun and tense instead of melodramatic.
Amy and Rory don’t have a ton to do this episode, but they’re solid. Bursting onto the bridge of the space liner, Amy is wearing her kissogram police woman’s uniform from ELEVENTH HOUR and Rory is wearing his Roman Legion garb from his days as an Auton. It’s kind of silly for them to be in these outfits, which is designed to do what, exactly? Help us remember them? But when you realize that they’re in these outfits because they were doing a bit of role playing in the honeymoon suite, well, good on them. It makes sense that they’d go back to outfits worn during their escapades with the Doctor to provide a bit of a thrill in the bedroom, although perhaps doing so on the honeymoon is a bit soon.
Michael Gambon is his usual fantastic self and he carries all of the emotional weight the episode needs. When he breaks out into a smile towards the episode’s end, it lights up the scene. Katherine Jenkins is cute and sings and effectively adds a bit of pathos to the episode.
There’s some plot silliness going on that dampens my enthusiasm for the show a bit, but not to any noticeable level. The Doctor’s plan seems needlessly complicated and Gambon’s switch from grumpy old geezer to a guy willing to help comes off too suddenly, but A CHRISTMAS CAROL is a good watch, delivering a stronger emotional punch than I was expecting.