Monday, 27 December 2010

'DOCTOR WHO' - "A Christmas Carol"

Monday, 27 December 2010

Steven Moffat delivers his first festive special after he inherited and successfully revamped Doctor Who this year, give or take some rocky patches. "A Christmas Carol" was an obvious riff on Charles Dickens' seasonal ghost story, with uncompassionate Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon) the equivalent of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, and encapsulated the pro's and con's of Moffat's vernal tenure...

Things began on a Star Trek-meets-"Voyage Of The Damned" note, as honeymooning companions Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) were imperiled aboard a space-faring cruise ship on a collision course with a planet shrouded in dangerous fog. The only way The Doctor (Matt Smith) could save the ship's 4,002 passengers is to convince curmudgeonly Kazran Sardick to dissipate the fog he can control, using a machine his father built that protects the population from carnivorous fish that swim within its grey miasma. Unfortunately, Kazran's every bit as selfish and callous as his domineering dad was in life, so has no intention of helping The Doctor save the stricken people plummeting to a certain death from the sky above. Consequently, The Doctor decides to alter Kazran's selfish nature by travelling back in time to manipulate his childhood and make him value his fellow man, effectively placing himself in this story as The Ghost Of Christmas Past...

There's no denying the imagination on display throughout this special: a steampunk Victorian city, an enormous airborne shark gliding through a peasouper, terminally ill citizens frozen inside vertical containers. Moffat's creativity with visuals and ideas is his indubitable strength, and he has the skill to marry them with a story that feels logical enough to pass casual muster. The production designers also have the budget and expertise to craft a TV spectacle that (chintzy CGI composites aside) are surprisingly immersive for what's a transient treat for casual audiences. The care and attention is much appreciated and really helped keep "A Christmas Carol" engaging, while giving it that much-needed sense of specialness.

However, I still found "A Christmas Carol" to be something of a curious disappointment. I was glad the story wasn't so beholden to the Dickens story, allowing for artistic flourishes and diversions along the way, but it still trod a broadly familiar path. And while cozy familiarity is something most people crave as Christmas programming, it was hard not to start accurately predicting the course this episode took -- which was disappointing given how Moffat's narratives are usually so hard to pin down. Nevertheless, the plot bounced around like a pinball within the constraints of its own inevitable arc, and it was good fun at times. But it was also so restless and frenzied that it fell prey to a chief criticism of series 5: the lack of a sharp emotional hook to anyone.

Did we really fear for Amy and Rory's life? Of course not, they were there to be distressed and rescued (in drama that was handled off-screen most of the time.) Did we care about Kazran and desperately wish to see him mend his ways, as many generations have done with stingy Scrooge? Curiously enough, no. He was just a pigheaded pain whose past The Doctor had to temporally manipulate, in a rather unethical manner that geekier fans will gnash their teeth over. (What next, The Doctor takes Hitler on some fun childhood escapades to prevent WWII?) Or how about Abigail (Katherine Jenkins), the blonde inamorata of two younger versions of Kazran (Laurence Belcher, Danny Horn), who's woken from sub-zero stasis every Christmas Eve by The Doctor to melt the middle-aged Kazran's heart with pensive looks and trilling song? Unfortunately, as touching as soprano Jenkins was in her debut acting role, Abigail never amounted to much beyond a beatific plot-device. In fact, The Doctor was denied a decent provisional companion for this yuletide yarn, with Amy and Rory taking a backseat, making him look quite interfering and manipulative throughout.

For me, "A Christmas Carol" was undone by a disjointed storyline, populated by a handful of new characters it was hard to care about in the allotted timeframe. It puzzled me that Michael Gambon was relegated to watching his own past on a wall projection and sifting through photographs of his youth, rather than get stuck into the adventure himself. However, it was certainly a fine showcase for gawky Matt Smith, who capped his freshman year in a manner that makes David Tennant's era seem ever more distant. His bow-tied, bow-legged Time Lord is an impish delight, almost stumbling through scenes like a sozzled dancer in tweed. The Doctor's big entrance, rolling out from a fireplace in a clear echo of Santa Claus (or "Jeff" as The Doctor calls him) set the tone brilliantly for anyone who has yet to make the Eleventh Doctor's acquaintance, as a big chunk of Doctor Who's audience on Christmas Day are friends/family who don't watch the regular series and just want something lighthearted, vibrant, self-contained and fun to pass an hour. On that level it succeeded.

Overall, this was an entertaining and imaginative special that didn't outstay its welcome, but it felt like Charles Dickens simple story was needlessly complicated and smothered by additional ideas and a rather rambling mid-section. For me, "A Christmas Carol" didn't really come together to create a knockout emotional punch; the ingredients were there, the execution was excellent, but the magic just didn't appear.

  • Knowing the media furor that Karen Gillan's miniskirt caused earlier this year, I found it especially cheeky that Moffat decided to give it another appearance. The inference that Amy and Rory have a fetish for dressing up (as a police woman and Roman soldier, respectively) was also an amusing sub-textual joke for the adults watching.
  • I'm sure everyone noticed the JJ Abrams-style lens flares aboard the Star Trek-style spaceship. It was even designated a "Galaxy class" ship, a la The Next Generation's USS Enterprise.
  • Why did The Doctor make no attempt to save Abigail's life? Was there nothing he could do for her condition?
  • "IT'S A CHRISTMAS CAROL!" yelled The Doctor to Amy, just in case you were in any doubt where Moffat was getting his influence from.

WRITER: Steven Moffat
DIRECTOR: Toby Haynes
TRANSMISSION: 25 December 2010, BBC1/HD, 6PM
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