By C. Robert Dimitri | TV | December 29, 2010 |
By C. Robert Dimitri | TV | December 29, 2010 |
“Keep the faith. Stay off the naughtiness.”
With charm oozing from its every pore, the 2010 Doctor Who Christmas special did not take long to win me over and remind me that my life is substantially happier with new stories of The Doctor, Amy, and the TARDIS from the mind of Steven Moffat. Perhaps I was completely invested at the sight of that pre-credits honeymoon suite gag that gave us a hint of the role play that young lovers and newlyweds Amy and Rory might now share as a result of their previous adventures, with her in her old bobby outfit and Rory in that Roman centurion outfit that symbolizes his willingness to patiently wait millennia in order to protect her. If it was not that, then I certainly was energized a few minutes later when the Doctor tumbled out of that chimney on Christmas Eve and immediately took control of the room by spouting that rat-a-tat dialogue with the entertaining characteristic Matt Smith delivery. As an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” this episode of the same name is certainly the most Christmas-themed Doctor Who Christmas special yet. As such, with the rollicking start and the holiday spirit in my heart, I was quickly prepared to forgive whatever silliness and logical leaps might follow (and such elements did follow).
Our Scrooge equivalent in this tale goes by the name of Kazran Sardick, who is played by Michael Gambon, yet another talented guest star to add to the recent Doctor Who canon that reminds me that this program seems to have acquired more respect and recognition than it had in the old days. Most of us these days best know Gambon as Dumbledore in the Harry Potter film series, and I did find it initially jarring to hear such scathing “Bah, humbug!” dialogue coming from Gambon’s distinctive voice that I usually immediately associate with wisdom and kindness.
Sardick oversees the 44th century human colony of Sardicktown on a planet where the consistency of the fog in the air serves as an ocean for aerial fish. He has inherited a machine that enables him to control the fog and consequently the skies of the atmosphere so that the fish stay away from the people, but Sardick’s use of the machine is much more about sadistic control than it is benefaction. Further evidence of Sardick’s sadistic bent is his role as a wealthy loan shark who takes cryogenically frozen human beings as collateral for his debtors. When Amy and Rory’s honeymoon ship with 4,003 passengers careens out of control through that atmosphere, The Doctor must convince Sardick to use his machine to allow them a safe landing.
After emerging from the chimney to find a poor family begging for the release of one of Sardick’s captors, the Doctor and Sardick engage in a verbal battle of The Doctor’s manic wit versus Sardick’s indifferent cynicism, which sums up Christmas as such a terrible time of year because people expect something for nothing. When The Doctor ominously mentions that Sardick’s unwillingness to save lives might give him cause to worry about the 4,004th person, Sardick dryly replies, “Was that a sort of threat-y thing?” When Sardick orders his security to show the begging family out of his office, he adds as a parting shot, “Try and find me some funny poor people.”
Yes, cruel Sardick’s heart will be difficult to sway. The Doctor sees it as a positive sign that Sardick only threatens the young boy of the family and does not have the resolve to strike him, unlike Sardick’s father, whom The Doctor surmises had no qualms about beating him.
Inspired by the sound of caroling, The Doctor remembers the Dickens story and decides to take advantage of his Time Lord status by manipulating Sardick’s past. Sardick awakes to find a video recording from his youth projected onto the wall inside his dwelling. This was one of the times that his father did hit him. Sardick does not understand how he is seeing this; The Doctor reappears and pulls a nifty trick to become the “ghost of Chrismtas past.” He goes back out the door, and we hear the sound of the TARDIS. Then the sound of a reintegrating TARDIS echoes in the video, thus becoming part of a new history, and The Doctor enters young Sardick’s chamber through the window. The Doctor comforts him and speaks directly to old Sardick through the recording he has set up. Old Sardick dismisses what he is seeing as impossible, but the new memories that The Doctor creates generate in his mind spontaneously as The Doctor alters the past.
The Doctor and young Sardick resolve to catch one of the fish, as young Sardick is intrigued by them and missed a day at school when some of them attacked. Using the sonic screwdriver as an ad hoc lure, they attract a large shark, which The Doctor is able to stun in spite of its intent to eat them. The wound, though, appears to be mortal, and half of the screwdriver is left somewhere in the belly of the shark. Young Sardick still has a good heart and does not want to see the shark die. The Doctor is impressed that Sardick is able to ignore the fact that the shark wanted to kill them; after all, it was only hungry. They go to the freezer room where the debtors reside, so that the shark could be temporarily suspended to give The Doctor time to heal it.
In order to access the freezer, they need the combination, so The Doctor travels back to the present and obtains it from old Sardick, who roots for his younger self and The Doctor via the recording he continues to watch. (The Doctor must have been doing much work behind the scenes to allow for all these recording vantage points, but given the trouble and the time machine at his disposal, I suppose it is possible.)
In the freezer room young Sardick shows The Doctor one tenant in particular who loves the fish. Her name is Abigail, and this is the person whose release the poor family requested earlier. The shark is not as grievously wounded as they expected, for it swims/flies down to the freezer chamber and attempts to eat them again. (A Jaws homage makes its way into the score at one point.) A released Abigail soothes the shark with a beautiful song, and the three of them take a Christmas Eve jaunt on the TARDIS into the sky’s fishosphere (my term I just created) to release it.
Back in the present, old Sardick now has a portrait of Abigail on his wall, and we see in flashback the many Christmas Eves that The Doctor, young Sardick, and Abigail spent together, beginning the next year when the three of them summoned the shark back with the screwdriver and used it to pull a sleigh through the sky.
I have seen at least a few bizarre images in Christmas specials over the years that go outside the usual icons; a flying shark-pulled sleigh with Doctor Who at the reins might take the prize as most ridiculous. Nevertheless, it is so striking that I found myself coveting the action figure representation on behalf of some Christmas morning of my youth.
The Christmas Eve adventures continue as young Sardick grows into a young man. A collection of photos that old Sardick has accrued shows us that the three of them took trips to famous spots into the past all over Earth. Romance blossoms between Abigail and Sardick, and The Doctor makes a couple humorous attempts at playing the role of mentor for Sardick.
“When girls are crying, are you supposed to talk to them?” Sardick asks.
“I have absolutely no idea,” The Doctor replies.
Those tears are tied to a heartwarming visit to Abigail’s sister’s family for Christmas Eve, where the three of them share a poor but loving Christmas and The Doctor entertains the sister’s son with card tricks. That evening ends with a kiss between Sardick and Abigail, which The Doctor tells Sardick to consciously make all “nervous and rubbish and shaky,” because that’s the way it will be anyway, and at least that effort gives the illusion of control.
The good times must conclude, however, as we learn that Abigail has a secret. A counter on Abigail’s freezer has been subtracting one for each year’s night of adventure. A Christmas Eve in old Hollywood sees The Doctor sing with Frank Sinatra and unwittingly become engaged to Marilyn Monroe, while Abigail and Sardick share a passionate goodbye, as she tells him at the end of the evening that an illness she has will only allow one more night away from her freezer before she dies.
With the counter on her freezer down to one, The Doctor does not realize why now bitter young Sardick no longer wants to share Christmas Eves together. After The Doctor leaves, young Sardick’s father introduces him to the fully functional cloud machine and its promise of control over the skies and the colony’s people. In spite of all the positive experiences that The Doctor has given Sardick, it seems that he will still become an uncaring old man.
In the present the colony’s President begs Sardick to save the lives of the cruise ship passengers, but Sardick refuses. Amy plays the role of the ghost of Christmas present and appears to him via hologram, showing him the passengers as they sing for their lives, in the hopes that the harmonies might affect the fish and the fog per The Doctor’s suggestion. Sardick stubbornly refuses and tells Amy why Abigail must remain frozen. He asks her how he could possibly choose which day to allow her to live before she dies. With his own love lost to him, why does it matter when anyone dies?
The Doctor reappears, expresses sympathy over Abigail, and makes one final entreaty to Sardick. Sardick defies The Doctor to show him a future in which the ship’s passengers are dead that will alter his resolve, and The Doctor reveals that he already has. This time he has brought the very young boy Sardick forward through time. The boy has been listening to the insensitivity of his future self, essentially his own ghost of Christmas future. Young Sardick is terrified by what he has become. Old Sardick - eerily similar to his own father - moves to strike his younger self, but he instead collapses into tears.
With Sardick finally in the Christmas spirit, the mission would be accomplished, but Sardick’s weather machine is keyed to his brain waves, and unfortunately this last instance of time-traveling interference by The Doctor has altered Sardick so much that the machine no longer recognizes him. The only option left is to release Abigail for one last night, transmit her song via the sonic screwdriver, and hope that this can tame the skies and the fish with the shark still operating as a speaker high above. The ship is saved, and snow falls as the fog crystallizes.
Safely on the ground, Rory, Amy, and The Doctor depart to give Rory and Amy a honeymoon that might not be as harrowing. Her death nigh, Abigail and old Sardick share one last shark sleigh ride together. It is difficult to imagine a flying shark-sleigh and “bittersweet” working together, but they jibe well enough.
Not to be a crotchety old Scrooge myself, but back in the old days of Doctor Who (and even back in the early days of the new days of Doctor Who), there was a fairly standard formula in the storytelling. The Doctor and his companions would land in the TARDIS, they would have a look around and find some trouble, they would resolve said trouble, and then they would leave in the TARDIS. A growing trend for the program involves The Doctor being much more meddlesome over the course of each adventure by using the TARDIS (or some other time-traveling device, as seen in “The Big Bang”) to alter history to his advantage.
I believe that “A Christmas Carol” works as a riff on Dickens because the very nature of the original story is about reflecting upon the past, present, and future, and if you are going to adapt that premise with a time machine already built into your story, then you should make use of that time machine. The devices for “Christmas past” and “Christmas future” in this story were cleverly appropriate and pleasing. I do worry about the precedent that is being set for the Doctor Who universe, however. What is to stop us in future adventures from wondering why any given predicament could not be solved with this methodology? We were told a few seasons back that Rose’s father could not be saved, but these rules of time travel to which The Doctor holds are beginning to seem awfully arbitrary and convenient.
Far be it from me to nitpick over the specifics of something as fantastical as Doctor Who. “A Christmas Carol” might not hold up to all the rigors of logic, but my suspension of disbelief was not seriously compromised thanks to the solid performances and that Moffat wit. The program does seem to be reaching even more of a satisfying stride with the fast, effortless banter that at some points demands a pause and rewind simply so you can fully savor the exchange (or so that you can catch that line you might have missed due to processing the one before). Matt Smith might not be your favorite Doctor, but there is never a moment when he is on screen that does not completely convince me that this is entirely his role now with those mannerisms and eccentricities that are uniquely his and consequently those of the eleventh Doctor.
Also, in considering this episode, his scenes with the young Amy Pond, and that Children In Need benefit earlier this year (look up the video if you have not seen it), I notice that Smith has continually demonstrated an excellent rapport with children while playing the Doctor. I would go so far as to say that I would not mind seeing a child companion for an episode or two. That is notable given my tendency to roll my eyes whenever fictional children are placed in peril.
After the program ended, we were treated to a montage of scenes from the upcoming season, and this trailer did not fail to build my anticipation. Ahead of us we have The Doctor in America wearing a Stetson hat, River Song shooting said hat off his head, River out of her clothes for some reason, and an apparently imprisoned Doctor with a full beard. I am psyched!
C. Robert Dimitri faced unexpected trouble in watching this episode thanks to the crazy weather of this holiday season, but he does want to thank BBC America for allowing us Yanks to join the Brits in watching the episode on Christmas day this year. He hopes that at least this broadcast was not edited for time, as he did write BBCA an email asking them to stop cutting out scenes. At this point his most fervent holiday wish is simply to travel back in time to relive vacation again and spare the return to work, but he would settle for a ride on that flying shark-sleigh.