Stuart Ian Burns sings the praises of Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol
Happy Christmas! How are we all? Still suffering from mince pie indigestion and an overabundance of alcoholic cheer? Good, good. Let’s begin. Where was I? Right, that’s right, Christmas Doctor Who! Hooray! Now, for a good long while on my own blog, this blog, I had the tag line, “A vast archive in place of an imagination.”, which is used by the narrator in the Italian film Il Divo to describe its subject, former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, a cold, callous, meticulous, unfeeling man without a shred of warmth. A bit like Donna Noble at the beginning of The Runaway Bride.
Previously I’ve employed it hopefully ironically to describe myself, but during the emotional crescendo of Doctor Who’s A Christmas Carol, as the older Kazran embraced the younger version of him, my fan gene was screaming “Blinovitch! Blin-oviiiiitch!” instead of the misty-eyed recognition that my favourite tv rendition of Charles Dickens’s original tale from ’77 with Michael Horden as Scrooge, always brings as the mental documentation I have of Doctor Who’s mythology asserted itself.
It’s that COPAC of the mind which throughout also led me to wonder exactly how the Doctor could be changing history to such a degree and not be creating cataclysms in the web of time all of the place making The Waters of Mars look like the dodgy banger in a Christmas cracker and how Kazran could have two sets of memories babbling about in his head when causality itself was being messed with, and why the Doctor hasn’t employed this methodology before, on, I don’t know, Davros?
Then as the night draws in I’m visited by three ghosts (Twitter, Gallifrey Base and the TARDIS Index File) and my imagination kicks back in. This is a whole new rebooted universe, time can be rewritten, who’s to say what’s up or down and if the Amy can play au pair to the younger version of herself in The Big Bang then hug away Kazran and let all those frozen people live again, keep Christmas well, and all the other stuff you’re going to do after the temporal duration of the episode.
Because come Boxing Day, come the second viewing, I’m delighted, beguiled and all the things writer Steven Moffat probably hoped I’d be the first time around. This is Moffat’s answer to Davies’s previous argument (from about the time of Voyage of the Damned) that the British public can’t handle anything too complex on Christmas Day, that something like Blink couldn’t work and what you really want is Who as blockbuster movie with faux Dickensian trappings like The Next Doctor, rather than emotional chamber piece about the timelord making someone less grumpy.
In actuality, the Doctor has used a similar methodology before, in Moffat’s only 90s Who fiction, Continuity Errors from the Decalog 3 Virgin Books anthology in which the Seventh Doctor also changed history to help deal with an obstinate librarian and Paul Cornell's Telegraph short story "The Hopes and Fears of All the Years". But the clever aspect of this story was in making the Doctor fully aware of his borrowing from literature. I don’t remember that happening much in the Hinchcliffe era. It’d be like the Fourth Doctor saying “Elementary my dear, Leela” in Talons.
It’s that self-awareness that stopped this from being the simple cover version it could have been and created an extra tension as to who the various ghosts would be. A lesser writer might have employed Rory somehow as the future ghost instead of what was the rather marvellous twist that originally led to me contracting Blinovitch syndrome and indeed more clearly insert some kind of Marley figure (though there’s probably an argument that the Doctor embodied him too). Where Dickens employs his ghosts as a device to allow Scrooge to visit various points in his own timeline, Moffat deploys the Doctor to create memories instead.
Just as years ago, the casting of Simon Callow as Dickens demonstrated this new version of Who meant business, the glinting eyes of Michael Gambon as Kazran shows how ambitious the show has become. Oddly enough, this is the first time he’s Scrooged. He played the Ghost of Christmas Present to Callow’s Scrooge in the animated Carol in 2001, the one were Kate Winslet sang, as well as Jenkins actually, but in fact he’s barely done any Dickens on screen so no wonder he took up this opportunity.
Gambon’s modesty in Confidential suggested that all he did was see in which direction Toby Haynes pointed and went there, but this was about as layered a performance we’ve seen from a Who guest star, utterly captivating especially in the scenes when he was called upon to remember fondly the memories captured photographically even though this was the first time the older Kazran was remembering fondly those memories, scene which themselves were reminiscent of his long term collaborator Stephen Poliakoff.
His performance might have been enough had the actors playing the younger Kazran’s not been up to the job, but luckily both Laurence Belcher (whose making quite a career from playing smaller versions of our greatest actors – he’s the teenaged Xavier in the X-Men prequel, understudying Patrick Stewart) and the new to the IMDb, Danny Horn, were more than capable of carrying the collective emotional weight of the single character, this was no Matthew Waterhouse turning into Andrew Sachs (cf, the Big Finish audios).
Matt clearly enjoyed the challenge of slightly pitching his performance differently with each of them and like Death to the Doctor we can clearly see now that he’s worked out how he wants to play the character and how Moffat wants to write it. His petulant reaction to all the kissing and marrying Marilyn was just perfect, and more importantly very specific to him, though it does explain somewhat how Tenth might have nabbled Liz I. Nevertheless, David Tennant seems like a very long time ago. The End of Time was only a year ago. Amazing.
The strength of the episode even managed to soften my heart towards Katherine Jenkins, a figure I usually have a snobbish enmity towards because of what she represents in the classical crossover market as I watch her compilations massively outselling the likes of “proper” singers like Anna Netrebko, Renee Fleming and Angela Gheorghiu, Classic FM to Radio 3, Classic FM Magazine to BBC Music, Pip and Jane Baker to Robert Holmes, David Gooderson to Michael Wisher.
Moffat somewhat protected her by making Abigail Dickens’s Belle figure, an obscure object of desire, Mulveyian projection of male desire only now and then allowed her own emotional beat. But in places, Jenkins melted my heart, especially when she sang as in the goofy coddling of the shark (Spotify link) and in the Murray Gold rush job that played out the episode (and how demeaning for the rest if us under achievers that Gold can knocking something like that out in a couple of days).
Speaking of Confidential discoveries, how have we only just employed Michael Pickwoad, a man who looks like he should be revealing how he created an entire Cyber-battlefleet in the 60s from a contemporary lunch budget not taking over now and showing the previous comparative youngsters how these things should be done? Pickwoad is of course a legend; his first proper prod. des. job was Withnail & I and he’s been providing drawing rooms for corsets and bow-ties on tv for years including The Old Curiosity Shop a few years ago.
His design work in A Christmas Carol was stunning, nodding not just to a kind of Dickensian steam punk aesthetic but also the soulless interiors of Citizen Kane’s Xanadu, the same kind of soulless privilege born from a heartless past. He’s brave too; obviously Moffat’s detailed script would have suggested the classically futuristic interior of the spaceship, but Pickwoad pushed it further than we’ve yet seen in nu-Who, as close as we’ve been to the plastic polish of some 80s Davison stories (in which a bridge would often be left to suggest the contents of an entire ship).
All of which didn’t seem to leave much room for Amy and Rory. Typically Arthur Darvill finally receives an opening credit but is barely in the episode but it certainly explains their absence from the cover of the Radio Times. They received a few good moments, not least the unspoken explanation for why they were in those costumes (not the timey-wimey reason suggested by the trailers) but essentially they were in the classic companion of waiting for the Doctor to save them. There’s a longer discussion to be had about this with reference to The Christmas Invasion, but I’ve been writing for three hours and five years already and it's time to wrap this up.
A Christmas Carol hasn’t convinced everybody but Moffat’s achievement has been to soften the heart of us Scrooges who too easily look to the details when it’s the emotional sweep that is important. Davies was capable of that too, though arguably most of his specials overeggnogged the Christmas pudding too much not least in the ghostly resurrection of Astrid. Unlike Dickens even, who at the end of his tale makes it plain that Tiny Tim didn’t die, there’s no cure for Abigail, who’ll pass away in Kazran’s arms once their shark-ride is over. We’re left with the message that sometimes we can fight, but sometimes the courage is in our acceptance, and that’s well worth ignoring five or fifty years worth of mythology for.