The Doctor rushes to save the lives of his companions Amy and Rory and 4001 other passengers of a doomed space faring leisure liner as it hurtles towards an Alien planet. Unable to save them himself he is forced to rewrite the past of Kazran Sardick, a miserly old man who has the power to save the liner but whose heart is cold to the plight of others.
Spike Marshall: I think there is a major difference between American and British representations of Christmas and I think Doctor Who’s previous and current show runners (Russell T Davies and Stephen Moffat respectively) are perfect representations of this. I think American Christmases are often more ‘honest’. They are saccharine and sweet and contrived, but it’s rooted in an honest emotion. As such there is a tendency for schmaltz and overindulgence and spectacle which emerge from a place of emotional honesty. Christmas in Britain runs on the dichotomy of British emotional reticence in conflict with a holiday which is staggeringly emotive (despite the best interests of card and toy manufacturers). As such there is a trend for the British to embrace tack and camp as their festive representations. It is a way of diminishing the emotion, making it silly and small and manageable, and Davies’ previous Christmas Specials are perfect representations of this. Sure there are moments of occasional darkness and emotion but they are often disconnected from the Holiday.
The Doctor’s malaise and loneliness in several of the Christmas Specials is seasonally apt but often the Christmas Specials are stories which just happen to be set at Christmas rather than stories with Christmas as an integral part of the framework. Moffat however seems to be a far more emotionally honest writer, even if he doesn’t allow his stories to be overwhelmed. As such I felt that A CHRISTMAS CAROL, the first Moffat penned Christmas Special, had way more in common with the American rather than British ideal of Christmas. This is in no way a bad thing. My personal feeling is that ever since Christopher Eccleston joyously declared that “Just this once, everybody lives!” way back in Season 1 that Moffat had a better handle on ‘big’ emotional moments than RTD.
We’ll get into the nitty gritty of the episode later, but to start with a simple question to my fellow reviewers. Did you feel this episode?
Casey Moore: I felt it, especially since Moffat went with the smaller emotional moments (for the most part) rather than the larger “everyone is going to die” moments. This is a story about the redemption of one man more than it is the story of trying to save the 4003 people on the ship. And the small moments come throughout the whole story from the Doctor and the kid playing their card game to secret hand holding. The thing which kicked me in the gut was when we found out who he is showing the future to since it went back to the whole conceit of trying to change one man to save many.
And as for the emotional honesty, the idea of shutting down all emotions over just one person rings so true to me. If it is someone we love, I find we can become very selfish in our attitude to try and do anything for that person at the expense of everyone and everything around us. We will let the world burn if it means the ones we love are safe and ok.
I have more to get into, but I will wait until we get deeper into the discussion.
Xagarath Ankor: although quite a few people I know found the episode silly and melodramatic, it’s a Christmas special- those are meant to be! As Spike’s already pointed out,
British television has a long history of this kind of thing.
Yes, I felt the episode- Moffat’s always had a much stronger grasp of subtlety and understatement than Davies ever did as a writer, and knows that the emotional moments of a story are often more effective done quietly. The decision not to show the inevitable ending of the tragic thread made it far more effective, whereas the bombast was saved for the big, positive Christmas-y scenes. RTD would probably have given us several minutes of Abigail singing as she died, or something similar, and that wouldn’t have been half as effective for me.
I also felt the lighter aspects were carried very well- Smith’s really matured in the role (good though he was to start with), and is showing himself to be a much more able comic actor than any Doctor Who’s been in the part in quite some time- probably since Pertwee back in the early 70s (who was known for it).
Mr_Adam: I did feel this episode – I agree with Spike to some extent about the dichotomy of the British X-mas but I think that the way the modern doctors have made it to 3 Victorian Christmases shows that in order to get to an “honest” Christmas shows that we need to get back the age that spawned Christmas as we now know it.
Spike Marshall: Well Christmas, as we know it, is inherently Dickensian. But I think the British psyche always makes the leap from Christmas to Consumerism. Like we’re being tricked into something. I think having the action take place away from the modern world helps with that.
Xagarath Ankor: Christmas as we now know it dating from the Victorian era’s another peculiarly British thing- the Yule traditions being centuries older in Teutonic Europe and the Baltic regions and still celebrated under that name in some places.
Spike: To go back to what you were saying earlier, this definitely feels like the strongest episode for Matt Smith thus far. He really seems to have found a rhythm to his performance and I kind of like how he’s willing to take a backseat to other characters and work as an ensemble. He can handle himself really well when the focus is on him, but I think he works better with others. It’s also fascinating listening to the dialogue and hearing the differences between Smith and Tennant. Moffat writes the Doctor as one man and you can almost imagine how Tennant’s Tenth Doctor would have played a scene; it’s a testament to both actors that they were able to craft such unique performances.
Casey Moore: On the setting and set up of the episode, it very much felt like a bait and switch to me, and I mean that in a good way. We knew from the trailers how the episode was going to go, but they started it in a bit of Titanic-esque mode and then switched. I liked that a lot, and was also very happy we did not have the Doctor battling something on Earth again.
Mr_Adam:We might as well have been on Earth, and with a titanic about to crash it seemed like a riff on the previous Christmas specials, but I think this was something Moffat was conscious of and was able to turn these familiar ingredients into a new pudding.
Xagarath Ankor: That said, it was refreshing to have a Christmas special where the entire planet wasn’t in imminent danger of destruction, and the show does have a bit of a history of might-as-well-be-Earth planets. Has there ever been a Moffat script that wasn’t at least a little bit of a bait-and-switch?
Spike: I don’t think so. Even stuff like the Doctor Dances is predicated on the enemy trying to help rather than harm. I think the biggest bait and switch in this episode is the nature of the story itself. The way it uses the nature of A Christmas Carol, a story EVERYONE knows, and then does new and fun stuff with it.
Mr_Adam: I for one was pleased it wasn’t a slavish adaptation.
Xagarath Ankor: The take on the Ghost of Christmas Future, in particular, was impressively ingenious stuff. Moffat’s always had a very strong trademark of using time travel intelligently in his scripts, and this was no exception.
HarleyQuinn22: I absolutely loved this episode.It pulled off something that so many Christmas episodes of various shows shoot for and miss completely: it felt MAGICAL.That shot of The Doctor leaving older Sardick only to pop up in the video footage in the same shot was wonderful, and I felt like a little kid oohing and ahhing all over the place.
Casey Moore: Something else which strikes me thinking about it more and more the day after is the Doctor and children in this episode. Moffat seems to very much be aware of the Children aspect of this show and it is as if he wants kids to know there is this man out there with wondrous abilities who could be their friend. The Doctor very much as Santa from the get go.
Spike Marshall: Just a quick interjection, but I found the fact that the Doctor went to help the young Kazran Sardick, an abused child, to be very important. The fact that someone did hear his crying and did come to help him. It’s a subtle moment, but it’s got a lot of impact.
HarleyQuinn22: Absolutely.It reminded me a little of the scene in The Hungry Earth where he provides encouragement to the dyslexic boy by treating his impediment as no impediment at all.
Mr_Adam: Smith does seem to bond well with children, i think that he allows them to identify with his confusion around adult humans and adult situations, especially if you see his brief stint on the Sarah Jane adventures – also, as Harley says he shows them that they don’t have to fit into the adult world (and that sometimes it is a good thing not to).
Xagarath Ankor: On another note from the plot for a moment, I was again stuck by how visually gorgeous the show’s been this year. I don’t think it’s just the switch to HD, given how flat the 2009 specials were in comparison, but things have a much richer colour palette and far better cinematography and framing than in the past. It meant the Dickensian look was much more effective than, say, The Next Doctor.
HarleyQuinn22: The cinematography in this episode was stellar, particularly the shots of The Doctor framed in young Sardick’s window.Absolutely gorgeous.
Spike: It was directed by Toby Haynes, who directed the Pandorica Opens/Big Bang and is due to direct the two part opener of Season Six. He did a really wonderful job of actually giving the episode a really rich feel. It looks absolutely gorgeous at times and I really loved the dark blue tones he used, really made the episode feel cinematic. But watching the Season 3 Christmas Special again (the space Titanic episode) before Christmas really brought home how different Moffat’s season looked compared to RTD’s seasons.
Xagarath Ankor: Mind you, Voyage of the Damned would make any other special look good by comparison.
Spike: I just had flashbacks to the Space Angels lifting the Doctor skywards. Which isn’t to say A Christmas Carol isn’t without sentiment or schmaltz, it just feels a little better handled. The passengers singing carols to Sardick as the ship plummets is designed to create maximum emotional impact, but there is also a vital plot reason for them to be doing it and a sting in the tale.
Casey Moore: We have talked about how great Smith and Gabon’s performances were, but not knowing anything about Katherine Jenkins (and even in such a small role), I thought she was very good at selling the role, from childlike wonder to the older emotional truth of an adult knowing they are going to die. I really knew nothing of her except the few bits I saw which said she was an opera singer, and I was worried the somewhat stunt casting would fall flat. But that scene by the pool she sold with her eyes.
Spike: Yes, Jenkins was a great part of a really fantastic cast. Michael Gambon and Laurence Belcher were great as the Old and Child Kazran Sardick, but I thought that Danny Horn as Kazran as a young man was fantastic. His work with Jenkins and Smith was nicely subtle and underplayed and he really sold the change in the character. I’ve always been an advocate of Karen Gillian and Arthur Darvill as Amy and Rory but I actually found them kind of distracting and screechy in this episode in comparison to the fantastic performances given by Smith, Jenkins and the multiple Sardicks.
HarleyQuinn22: Thank God I wasn’t the only one who found them distracting.I was so involved in the rest of the story that their appearances felt like the equivalent of a speed bump in the middle of the Indy 500.
Xagarath Ankor: Jenkins certainly shows up Kylie when it comes to stunt casting- played her part very well, even if Bleak Midwinter was rather more effective than the carol they wrote specially for the episode. Gambon was the real standout, though- in some ways, I wish the series would adopt a heavyweight actor like him (or Cribbens or Jacobi from previous years) as a full-blown regular.
Also, Matt Smith seems to have a real natural charm when it comes to working with children- first young Amelia Pond and now here and it’s a real pity they can’t get away with a child companion.
Then again, I might be in the minority on wanting to replace the long TARDIS tradition of pretty young things with children and old people!
Mr_Adam: Not at all, I have been pushing for this for a long time! However if this episode proves anything it’s that the Doctor probably doesn’t need a companion at all, especially as he can have an instant rapport with anyone (even if he has to go back in time to build it!).
Spike: I think you could justify that with Smith’s Doctor though. In a lot of ways he is the least dangerous incarnation of the Doctor with a more paternal/fraternal interaction with his companions and more of a laidback and silly style than most of the other Doctors. Compared to the broodiness of Nine and the Romantic Hero angle of Ten he’s almost boring, but that safety works really well with the way stories are written. He’s an emotional centre, bedrock, for other characters.
Xagarath Ankor: I actually think he harks back to Davison (the 5th Doctor, in the 80s, for the puzzled among you) in terms of taking a much quieter approach, though Davison was more of an older brother figure to his companions. Both were the youngest Doctor to date, respectively.
If you were to attach broad archetypes to the various Doctors, Nine would be an old Warrior, fitting with his turbulent backstory, and Ten had a distinctly Messianic flavour much of the time. The current Doctor, by contrast, seems to be written more like a Magician- both in his behaviour and his relationships- which fits with the fairytale tone Moffat seems to prefer.
Casey Moore: So do we want to get into the Doctor’s last bit with Amy Pond? Foreshadowing or merely the writers screwing with the audience? I know a lot of viewers are going to read a lot into that simple conversation. I thought it was a nice way to start setting up next season and bring back in Amy and Rory (and I thought Rory in the Ghost of Christmas Present was the only real off bit of the show).
Xagarath Ankor: I think the refrain of “Time can be re-written” is certainly foreshadowing something, given how often it’s cropped up this year. Not so sure about the last bit- in another drama, I’d say it was leading up to the death of the lead character, but that’s extraordinarily unlikely in Doctor Who.
Spike: Then again Moffat has been dancing around the fact that something big happens at the end of the first bit of the season (gosh, we really need to come up with an easier way to describe this two part season). I was more intrigued by the song Abigail sings at the end given that it was specifically written for the episode and is about Silence being the only thing around if you’re alone.
Xagarath Ankor: Good catch- the possible connection between the song and the “Silence will Fall” plotline honestly didn’t occur to me.
Richard Dickson:I’ll echo the praise being heaped so far.As I said in the Catch-All thread, if you didn’t like this episode, then you just don’t like Doctor Who.This was everything I love about the character distilled into breezy ninety-minutes:the faith in humanity, the never-say-die attitude, the humor with great power and wisdom behind it, it’s all there.And I find Moffat’s scripts much more whimsical and fantastical than Davies’.Little things like the fish floating in the fog, it makes this universe once that actually feels like it would be fun to travel around with the Doctor, rather than the more foreboding and ominous one Davies tended to portray.
Did anyone read anything more into that quick throwaway line to young Sardick when the Doctor says something along the lines of “Do it or spend your youth in a room inventing a new kind of screwdriver”?Was that the Doctor expressing regret?That would certainly lend a whole new piece of motivation to what he was doing.
Casey Moore: I saw it as the Doctor’s constant regret and inability to understand women and relationships. Also maybe as one of those lines to drive fans crazy.
Xagarath Ankor: That reminds me- Smith had a fantastic array of lines in this episode, arguably some of the better jokes the modern Doctor Who’s had. Things like the psychic paper being unable to certify the Doctor as a responsible adult due to it being “too big a lie” were absolute gems. There was such a rapid-fire succession of them he came across as a little reminiscent of Groucho Marx at some points, which is certainly no bad thing.
Richard Dickson:That “too big a lie” line was a great one indeed.There was also the none-too-subtle jab at Star Trek at the very beginning of the episode.The way things were starting off, I swore it would be revealed were watching an episode of the Who-niverse equivalent of Trek, especially with the Geordi LaForge cypher at the helm.And in a way, it seemed a fond nod to the older, pre-revival episodes; it certainly shared that visual style, slightly cheap in its futuristic bent.
But what about that great twists to the traditional story where all the Doctor’s efforts don’t change a thing?He just ends up doing even more damage, making Sardick bitter with heart-broken on top of it.And then they neatly turn the story in on itself by having it be young Sardick who gets the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come treatment rather than the old one.That’s just some really great, clever writing there.
Mr_Adam: I noticed a lot of lens flare on the space-titanic helm which is my main memory of the new Trek, I also thought that it juxtaposed with the lamplight of planet Dickens.
Spike: I kind of loved the line where Amy says ‘They really love their snowmen here’ and the Doctor just blithely replies “Yeah, I’ve been busy” inferring he’s spent the last hour or so just building snowmen.
HarleyQuinn22: I just want to tip my hat to this show for its continued ability to slide in some adult humor that will fly over the kids’ heads.From Amy and Rory cosplaying on their honeymoon to a reference to masturbation so vague that it took me a second viewing to catch it, those lines had me howling while the kids were none the wiser. They always manage to make it clever rather than crass.
Xagarath Ankor: I think the single biggest change between the Moffat and Davies eras of the show has been the quality of the plotting. RTD was brilliant at building tension and excitement but poor at resolving it, whereas this year everything has been foreshadowed, previously placed or otherwise fit together, while managing to be surprising. That’s a rare combination.
Richard Dickson:Xagarath, that’s a good point, and one that seems underlined by the teaser for the next season.It already seems like the groundwork is being laid for something big.
HarleyQuinn22:To add to Dickson’s point, I feel like the last scene in this episode was laying groundwork for what’s to come in season 6.Was I the only one who picked up on some awkwardness in the main trio?That hug felt abruptly aborted once Rory shoots the Doctor a little look as if to say, “Let her go, mate!”
Xagarath Ankor: And then there was Rory’s sort of half-hearted gesture towards the Doctor afterwards, which he pretty much ignored.
Richard Dickson:I hope they don’t go for the love triangle here.They’ve done such a great job making us root for Rory, I think it would be a little damaging to our perception of the Doctor.Now, what I can see is that there’s some sort of connection between Amy and the Doctor due to her being responsible for bringing him back into this time stream, a connection she might incorrectly perceive as attraction but which actually represents something else entirely.
HarleyQuinn22: And that last bit where Amy and The Doctor are talking about how “everything ends or nothing would ever start” pricked my ears up BIG TIME.Are they foreshadowing Amy possibly departing in Season Six?
Xagarath Ankor: I read that more as going with this year’s tease about River possibly killing the Doctor, which, knowing Moffat, won’t happen at all and will instead be something bewilderingly clever.
Richard Dickson:Has there been a season that hasn’t started with the possibility of the companion leaving by the end?
But seriously, I don’t think that line would be much foreshadowing if all it meant was Amy leaving.I think it hints at something bigger.Maybe River killing the Doctor as Xagarath speculated, maybe the end of the exile of the Time Lords?
Going back to the comments on how good this looked, I was struck by how downright odd — in a good way — it looked to see the Doctor in America, with those Monument Valley-style rocks and American cars and such.It’s good to see them trying to not have everything conveniently happen in this one little corner of northern Europe.
Spike: Yes, the next time trailer suggests that we’re in for a lot of fun next year. What with all the grey aliens, Nazis, musketeers, and astronauts. But I’m really excited about the Doctor in Utah, as Richard said it’s interesting to see the Doctor in such a foreign looking locale.
Xagarath Ankor: And then there’s the long-awaited Neil Gaiman script, which I’m fairly sure all those creepy house shots were from.
I really doubt we’ll see the Time Lords back- Moffat’s always been openly not a fan of them, and he doesn’t have RTD’s history of openly lying to preserve his finales. I’m mainly wondering how the show will one-up the erasure of everything from having ever existed (which in turn one-upped the end of time, which one-upped the destruction of reality). There’s a limit to how much peril the universe can be stuck in.
Spike: To be honest, after the Universe imploding and all reality being unwritten I think if the show had any more peril John Cleese would have to come and save us all.
Casey Moore: I think that last line would be too on the nose for Moffat and the current run of the show. And having watched The Big Bang right before the Christmas Episode I think it has a lot more to do with River Song and the upcoming season.
Spike: I think River Song is going to be ‘dealt with’ this year. Just because they’ve put a lot of time into developing a plot hinged around a recurring character. It makes sense to try and maximize the plot whilst Alex Kingston is still vaguely available.
Xagarath Ankor: And, of course, before she gets too old to credibly be growing younger in each successive story, for all they gave her a cleverly middle-aged haircut and look back in Silence in the Library.
Spike: The nonlinear relationship is a fantastic thing, but I don’t think it’s really wise to attempt it on a long form TV show like this. It’s been three years now since we first met River Song and now Alex Kingston has to look decades younger whilst being three years older.
Casey Moore: Overall for me, it was a very good Christmas episode and a solid episode of Doctor Who with all the whimsy and fun I expect. Also, a nice set up and meta commentary for waiting for the next season, “Christmas. Half way through the dark.”
Spike Marshall: To be honest the thing I loved most about the episode was seeing Michael Gambon going back to his villainous roots. I sort of grew up on The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover and Gambon’s brutishly villainous performance in that film was one of the first times I was ever just completely captured by a performance. As much as I love seeing Gambon in stuff like the Kings Speech and Harry Potter I always prefer to see him letting that inner darkness rage.
Xagarath Ankor: Though let’s be honest, The Cook The Thief version of Michael Gambon would sadly be out of place on any TV show, never mind Doctor Who. One of my favourite screen villains.
Spike: Oh I know. It was just nice to see Gambon being a generally frightening presence again. If but for half the episode.
Mr_Adam: I loved Gambon in this, he’s truly one of the best character actors in the world, whatever he’s doing, but let’s face it, as a baddie he’s really really good – For a few moments I thought he was going to start channeling Eddie Temple from Layer Cake. I’m glad they got a heavyweight in for that role, especially as he seemed to spend half the show on his own in a room talking to his past. The new series looks great (of course), mainly for its absences than anything – not much in the way of classic who villains, but then I guess we got our fill in the Pandorica Opens. Obviously I’m pleased that River Song is back, she’s been one of my favourite companions since she first arrived, and I hope we see lots more of her.
HarleyQuinn22: To be honest, it shocks me how much River grew on me in Season Five.I absolutely detested her character’s non-stop “Spoilers!” chatter, but now that she’s been given more to do than just gloat about how she knows something that The Doctor doesn’t, I quite like her.
Richard Dickson:I’ve liked River from the get-go, because of how she took the wind out of the sails of the seemingly unflappable Tennant Doctor.I’ve heard some wild theories about her — she’s the Rani and there’s a betrayal coming, she’s a future version of the TARDIS somehow made sentient, she’s actually a future regeneration of the Doctor — but I’d like to think Moffat has something a little more substantial in mind for the character, given the obvious affection he has for her.
Getting back to Gambon, he really helped carry the middle portion of the episode with the very thankless role of simply reacting to the events unfolding in the past.For a good chunk of the time, he’s either reacting to the video or looking through old pictures, and what’s remarkable is you can see in his expressions how the memories are shifting in his head.It’s an absolutely vital performance, because you need that link to the present to give the past story its significance, and Gambon does it beautifully.
Ian Pratt: It feels completely strange joining such a detailed discussion this late in the game, but I enjoyed the show so much I don’t think I can resist. I’ve never really been much of a Doctor Who fan. I didn’t grow up in a family that watched it and most of my friends never really bothered with the franchise so my exposure to it is extremely limited compared to the rest of you. However, none of that stopped me from finding this Christmas Special to be an exciting and often very funny hour or so of television.
My last experience with The Doctor was during Tennant’s run so there was quite a bit of adjustment going on for me as I was taking in the story itself. First of all, the show was significantly more visually stylish than I remembered it to be. As noted above, the cinematography and design of “Planet Dickens” (loved that mr_adam) were more striking and, well, cinematic than anything I’ve seen from Doctor Who before. It was especially impressive, given how easily that kind of quasi-Steampunk aesthetic can feel flat and/or lazy. Maybe it was just me, but I picked up a little bit of a Guillermo del Toro vibe from the Goblin Market-esque street scenes as The Doctor was formulating his plan.
Before last night, I hadn’t seen Matt Smith do much of anything except stand alongside Daisy Lowe in a few photos. It’s no exaggeration to say he caught me completely off-guard with how good he was. Within moments of him doing a Santa down Michael Gambon’s chimney, I felt like I’d been watching Smith for years, such is his charm and poise in the role. He taps into pop culture’s understanding of The Doctor and then runs amok all over it, like the character’s a sandbox game and he’s the 14 year old with a shotgun. There’s no doubting the fun Smith brings to the part and, with lines like “Marilyn, get your coat!” and “that was never a real chapel” at his disposal, I’m sure he’s enjoying himself too.
My team-mates have already done a fine job of outlining the work Steven Moffat did with subtle little character moments. All that remains on that note is for me to echo those sentiments and give Moffat a thumbs up for handling the “carpe diem” aspect to Kazran’s arc without resorting to any “O, Captain! My Captain!” shenanigans, and I say that as a Dead Poets apologist; it wouldn’t have felt tonally correct for reasons Spike touched on at the outset. There was a lot going on in that hour and it could very easily have felt as over-stuffed as many of the Britons watching it at tea-time on Saturday night. Restraint in areas like those helped achieve the right balance.
While I get how some of the gang felt Amy and Rory’s involvement was a little “bonus features”, Gillan and Darvill made the most of their limited involvement. Even with comparatively minimal screen-time, I cared about what happened to them and the rest of that ship. Considering this was my first time meeting a lot of these folks, that’s no small feat. Even some fine shows succumb to that dreaded safety net and scourge of excitement, “the death clock of the week.” I wasn’t smug in the knowledge that they’d all be back next time, because I knew the crew, the show, and its policy on “exit rules” about as well as I knew the actors playing them.
To show just how out of the “Who” loop I was/am, the second flying fish entered the equation, I immediately thought “LOVECRAFT!” Granted, hoping for some Brian Yuzna/Stuart Gordon style tentacle trauma at 6pm on BBC One (on Christmas Day no less) was optimistic in the extreme, I wasn’t disappointed despite its absence. That said, if Toby Haynes want to show me a Director’s Cut with Karen Gillan going all Barbara Crampton on this sucker, he can feel free to leave his contact details in the comments section below.
Spike Marshall: Now you see I’m glad you mentioned that this was your first episode of Moffat’s run because I was thinking the whole time about how Moffat can perhaps have the most convoluted and dense stories but still make them accessible. In the same way that Inception is a marvel of writing because it presents various concepts and ideas in a way that is broadly understandable Moffat’s Doctor Who is at once part of a greater whole and utterly accessible.
Ian Pratt: I think the emotional heft of the story Gambon brought to the forefront was a massive help with that. Not to take anything away from Moffat, but, like Richard was saying before, having someone with Gambon’s gravitas was crucial to selling a lot of the snappier stuff Matt Smith brought to the table. He’s the layman’s conduit into the story – the element that keeps an unfamiliar bum in a seat, if only for his captivating villainy. If this review wasn’t British enough already, that use of “the bum card” should do it.
Prankster: Man, I wish I could have joined this conversation earlier, but the special only aired Boxing Day evening, which is an extra 5 hours behind you Brits to boot. Maybe I can toss a lot of controversial statements out to get everyone to comment again! This season the Doctor will join with the Daleks! The show will endorse young-Earth creationism! River will reveal she’s actually a man! Rory will die! Oh wait…
Anyway, as anyone who reads the Doctor Who threads in the forum knows, I’m sort of the resident Scrooge when it comes to this show (yeah, I went there). I thought Davies’ run, while bizarrely watchable, was also generally terrible from a story standpoint. Things improved greatly when Moffat took over, to the point where I actually don’t feel embarassed to recommend the show now, but while Moffat’s clearly the most interesting and talented writer to tackle modern Who, he’s far from infallible. And when it was announced that the new special would be based on A Christmas Carol, my first response was “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” I think the idea of various popular entertainments inserting their characters into Dickens is, what, almost a century old at this point?
While I do think the special ended up being a bit hamstrung by the Christmas Carol format (Moffat came off as stretching to include the “Christmas Present” part) there was at least enough bizarre, inventive stuff, like the fog-fish, along with Moffat’s patented “wibbly wobbly timey wimey” business, to keep it fresh.
You guys kicked it off by mentioning the sincere emotionality. I generally feel that overplayed emotion denotes cynicism on the part of filmmakers and tv producers, and it was something Davies fell prey to all the time, with Moffat’s run so far being a welcome step back from that. But this was probably the most mawkish episode of his run. I can live with it because it’s Christmas, and because this episode concluded with people riding in a flying carriage being pulled by a shark, showing that Moffat still has his sense of surreal wit about him, but I’d be lying if I said I was particularly choked up by any of this. Maybe I felt a little twitch when the Doctor literally jumped into Sardic’s home movies.
I do love how unapologetically steampunk the series has become. I’ve heard longtime fans complain about this, but when your show revolves around a spaceship/time machine that looks like an old-fashioned phone booth, it kind of seems like you’ve been steampunk from day one. That said, I still find the Doctor Who universe a little baffling–why are there planets modelled on Victorian England, with no further explanation? It’s Firefly all over again!
Finally, at the risk of causing a stir, I was a little disappointed in Smith’s acting in the early going of this episode. For a while at first he kind of seemed like he was just reciting lines, rat-a-tat-tat, instead of really acting. He made up for it by the end, but as someone who’s been a Smith fan from “Everything’s going to be fine” I was a little worried at first. Conversely, people are saying they found Gillen and Darvill jarring, whereas I found myself wishing they had more to do. Especially since Darvill’s finally graduated to full cast member.
Xagarath Ankor: Agreed on Darvilll, who I’ve always liked- he’s refreshingly different from any companion the show’s ever had in the past.
On the Doctor Who universe itself- the difference between this show and Firefly is that rather than being one man’s vision it’s been built up over the years by a massive variety of writers. That’s always been something distinctive about the show- I can’t think, off the top of my head, of any other genre program that’s effectively outgrown its creators so much.
(Sidney Newman, the often-forgotten actual creator of the thing, stepped away from having much involvement with it in its first year after saying the first producer, Verity Lambert, had a better grasp of the program than he did)
The result of that patchwork creation process, however, is that the setting of the show has always been a tremendous mess- inexplicably Victorian space colonies aren’t that bad compared to some of the oddities in the older show, like having multiple stories when Atlantis sank for entirely different reasons.
Ian Pratt: Perhaps this is just my ignorance on the show shining through, but I interpreted the “messy”, distinctly British feel of the universe to be an implied side-effect of all the temporal mucking about going on. Alternate dimensions/timelines and what have you. At least, I think there were enough hints in that kind of direction put there to suggest as much (“new memories”.) That might feel like a very convenient explanation to some, although I’d argue that, when it’s handled as well as it was in “A Christmas Carol”, that kind of thing isn’t too big a deal. I think Moffat and Haynes deserve some slack for disguising their budgetary limitations as well as they did. I don’t know about the rest of you, but that type of approach to universe building is a welcome change from the tiresome forehead makeup that plagues so much televised science fiction. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’d be laughing unintentionally at a race of Cardassian rejects who say “‘urry up, Dock-ta!” not “hurry up, Doctor!”
Prankster: The planet of the cockney Cardassians? Come on, that would be awesome!
I didn’t mean to imply I had a problem with it, I just find it amusing that they plunk down a planet that was apparently settled by Victorian-era Brits with no explanation whatsoever. Obviously it fits the Dickensian storyline, but you would never see another SF show doing that. In fact, I was having this discussion elsewhere, when one internet writer said something like “it’s important to never mix genres. If you’re writing a story about pirates, you can’t have aliens attack in the middle of it or your audience will get lost.” And I responded, “Why the hell not?”
I think a lot of modern filmmakers and TV producers are so caught up in the idea that they can’t ever confuse the audience that they’ve forgotten how to challenge their imaginations. I think that’s one of the reasons that, for instance, superhero stories are always origins these days–most Hollywood writers seem to think everything genre-related has to be laboriously set up. Whereas that’s probably one of the things I love best about Moffat’s version of Doctor Who–he just never stops throwing crazy ideas out, populating the world with weirdness.
Spike: The thing with Doctor Who is that it has never had a single unified concept of what it is. It started life as pretty much a Historical education programme, the Doctor and his companions going throughout Earth’s history and commenting on Aztecs and Romans. Then you had the more action-serial style adventures of the Third Doctor which owed more to the Avengers and Gerry Anderson than Star Trek. Even Tom Baker’s run was stuck between the more sci-fi ideas of Douglas Adams tenure as showrunner and the Gothic, almost Hammer like, stories under Philip Hinchcliffe.
As such Who always has this feel of being cobbled together from a bunch of different sources. It is a strength of the show, but it is also a key weakness because the kitchen sink approach can sometimes be a bit much. Anyways it probably feels like we should be wrapping this up so I’m going to throw out one last question to you all? What was your favourite moment? Mine was Abigail’s song right at the end. I’m a fan of Murray Gold’s music, I think he gets a bit letdown by his music being too high in the sound mix but I think he does fantastic in general. As such I really felt Abigail’s song, the sweeping orchestration mixing with Jenkins voice perfectly. I’m a fan of those sort of moments anyways, but I think it work really well because you could really hear the power and emotion in Jenkin’s voice. It’s a sequence which would be utterly flat without that clear power at its centre.
Prankster: Gold’s gotten a bit better in the last season, but I still often find him to be waaaaaay too bombastic. And Abigail’s song was so obviously, hilariously dubbed that it didn’t really work for me.
I think my favourite moment was the Doctor jumping back into Sardic’s home movie, as mentioned. Kind of sums up what Moffat does best, for me. I guess when it comes down to it, I prefer this show to be clever than heartfelt, which is why I like the Moffat run. I’m glad they didn’t try to break the orchestra trying to make us well up the way Davies did (Canada’s Space channel aired The End of Time immediately before it, and it’s absolutely ridiculous how hard the last 20 minutes are trying to make us cry)–to me, a story is more touching when we’re allowed to find our own emotions instead of being told what to feel. This was a little more emotionally pushy than I like, but it still worked. I will also say–there’s something about moments when it snows at Christmas when it’s not supposed to that get to me, like in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Amends”. This episode’s climax had a bit of that magic. (Oh, and did anyone notice the blatant Buffy reference when Sardic said “Bored now”?)
Xagarath Ankor: If I had to pick a favourite moment, I think I’d plump for “Finally, too big a lie.” The whole scene is sprinkled with wonderful lines, but that little bit really summarised a lot of the philosophy of Doctor Who done well- it’s a show that should never, ever be feeling safe or predictable, and it doesn’t believe in coddling or protecting children either on the show or among the audience. I can’t think of many family shows that haven’t at some point suffered from playing down to their younger viewers, but this one’s always managed to avoid it.
Ghost of Christmas Future would be the runner-up, showcasing the best strengths of Moffat’s plotting. I’m still baffled how the man can consistently spring surprises like that on his audience without ever feeling cheap- they always slot perfectly into place. A bigger contrast with RTD’s reliance on last-minute contrivances is hard to imagine, and I speak as someone who enjoyed Davies’ writing.
Ian Pratt: Between Kazran’s scowling, boys saying “Mummy!” in the face of danger, and the great thematic touches Moffat brought to the familiar Christmas Carol format, the competition for stand-out moment is certainly strong. For me, though, it was all about The Doctor pimping his way through time and getting sort-of-but-maybe-not-quite hitched to Marilyn Monroe. I don’t know how many time-travel movies or TV show episodes I’ve seen where the idea of gallivanting through history is forbidden, to be avoided at all costs, so it was extremely refreshing to see a lead character doing just that without apologizing for it. Rather than feel like a shameless attempt to be simply “cool” though, it was perfectly in keeping with Smith’s frenetic angle on the character. Sure, he’ll change history for the greater good when necessary, but he’s also not above having a little fun while he’s at it. Great stuff.
For the record, Prankster, I’m right with you: “Planet of the Cockney Cardassians” would be at the top of my Sky+ queue.
Richard Dickson:My favorite moment was a small one, but one that felt so essentially Doctor Who when I saw it:the Doctor going outside and seeing the fish swimming in the fog.Right there is all the whimsy and wonder the character brings, and Smith plays it with just the right amount of wide-eyed enthusiasm. There’s no attempt to give us some pseudo-plausible explanation, there’s just fish swimming in the fog.It reminds me of a quote that was later appropriated by the McGann Doctor, but which I remember reading as a teen back in the 80s in some comic magazine profile of the character:“Can you imagine silver leaves waving above a pool of liquid gold containing singing fish? Twin suns that circle and fall in a rainbow heaven, another world in another sky? If you’d like to come with me, I’ll show you all this – and it will be, I promise you, the dullest part of all. Come with me and you will see wonders that no Human has ever dreamt possible. Or stay behind and regret your staying until the day you die.”That’s the essence of Doctor Who to me.Sure he’ll save the universe, but in his heart, he just wants to show you all the cool things in it, like a kid opening his toy box to show you his favorites.
Spike: That’s a fantastic note to end on. Thank you to everyone for taking the time to take part, I hope our readers were entertained and we’ll all be back in April when the sixth season of Doctor Who begins.