Doctor Who episode 786: A Christmas Carol (25/12/2010)
‘That never happened… but it did.’ Moffat raids his own material again, landing on the obscure New Adventures era short story Continuity Errors and mashing it together with Dickens (go on, guess which one). The result is certainly the best-looking Christmas special, and for my money the most satisfying, incorporating the festive themes more completely into the story than any by RTD. It’s the same difference in approach the two men take to “season arcs” – RTD would throw in a “Bad Wolf” here and there to superficially connect episodes, Moffat integrates his ongoing plots into the narratives of the season, so the cracks become crucial to the climax of Flesh and Stone and The Big Bang. When that works, as it does here, the results are wonderful.
It helps that the general uptick in the look of the show under Moffat reaches new heights here. We get the first of the kind of Christmas planets Moffat returns to in several future specials (most notably Trenzalore) – Sardick’s world, steampunk Victoriana, looks like it was built to feature on a futuristic Christmas card, with the dome of Sardick’s lair an adequate substitute for St Paul’s Cathedral. The Doctor popping out of a chimney and flying a one-shark open sleigh like Santa, or appearing at a bedroom window like Peter Pan, place him firmly in the world of childhood legend, which I suspect is exactly where Moffat wants him.
This is reflected in Smith’s performance, which hews more closely to The Lodger than The Eleventh Hour (notwithstanding a brief, Sherlock style sequence of him working out Sardick’s miserable family history from the clues dotted around his study). With Gillan and Darvill reduced to cameos, this is very much Smith’s episode. Paired with Michael Gambon, leaning into the spirit of the piece as a snarling, East End gangster version of Scrooge, the script comes alive, helped along by some lovely turns of phrase like ‘halfway out of the dark’ and some brilliantly Moffaty images like the Doctor walking out of Kazrick’s home movie screening and into the movie itself.
Combining this “timey wimey” element with Dickens’ Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future is another savvy move. I feel a bit of the ambivalence I mentioned talking about The Big Bang; in general, I think it works against the show to make time too fungible: Continuity Errors was a faintly disturbing story that left Bernice a little chilly about the seventh Doctor’s willingness to rewrite a woman’s history for convenience. After all, if the Doctor is willing to ‘turn you into a nicer person’ by changing your past, why does the Master exist? In its favour, A Christmas Carol recognises this: Sardick is aware of the Doctor’s interference and is less than thrilled: ‘I would never have known… if the Doctor hadn’t changed the course of my whole life to suit himself.’ The key moment is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come as Sardick recognises his own father’s awfulness in himself when the adult threatens to beat the child.
More importantly, after this final moment of self-awareness, Sardick has become unrecognisable. The timey wimey changes therefore are a (flying) red herring: the solution is Abigail’s singing (a bit naff, but at least they found a way to integrate Murray Gold’s annual song into the plot). So, Moffat has his cake and eats it – a redemption for Sardick, but one that’s a side dish. I think a more valid critique of the story is why the Doctor doesn’t even seem to try to find a cure for Abigail’s condition after all the adventures they’ve shared. There’s a troublesome sense between this and the Marilyn Monroe jokes that once the man’s story is done the woman is expendable.
That sour note aside, and with some reservations on the amount of time spent on the “every Christmas Eve” sequences, I think this is brilliant. It’s Moffat firing on all cylinders, pulling on a broad set of influences, including the 1970s Ghost Stories for Christmas (come on, ‘a face spider… like a tiny baby’s head with spider legs’). It’s practically the perfect Christmas special. I’m not sure they’re ever this good again.
Next Time: Space/Time
I do agree that this is the last really great one, but “Last Christmas”, which is partly about how keenly you remember those you’ve lost at that time of the year, is very dear to me.