It’s easy to see why the latest DOCTOR WHO Christmas special, “A Christmas Carol,” was billed as “the most Christmassy Christmas special” of all – because it certainly features the most Christmas Eves, thanks to time travel.
The story sees the Doctor (Matt Smith) desperate to save a spaceliner plunging into the atmosphere of an unnamed planet with a volatile charged cloud layer controlled by a machine in turn controlled by one Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon, of Harry Potter fame), the richest and meanest man in Sardicktown. He doesn’t like Christmas, and he doesn’t like children, and he simply cannot be bothered to save the 4,0003 aboard the crashing starship: “I don’t care!” he shrugs.
Since the TARDIS cannot lock on to the doomed ship, and Sardick’s machine boasts isomorphic controls keyed to Sardick himself, the Doctor decides to change Sardick’s mind by literally changing his mind: The Time Lord becomes the ultimate Ghost of Christmas Past by traveling into Sardick’s past to prevent him from becoming the hard-hearted miser who loans money but insists on keeping a family member frozen in hibernation as collateral. Reasoning that Kazran needed to use his heart more, the Doctor prodded young Kazran’s love for the frozen Abigail (Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins, making her acting debut) by taking him through time to celebrate a succession of Christmas Eves with Abigail. One Christmas he appeared to Abigail wearing a fez, and on another occasion he sported a long scarf reminiscent of his Fourth incarnation’s trademark.
Show-runner Steven Moffat indulged his signature “timey-wimey” jones in this story by changing Sardick’s memories in progress – as the Doctor altered the past, the older Sardick’s memories changed to match his new history. It was a brilliant conceit, wonderfully realized by Gambon, who seemed to revel in playing not only a villainous role, but one without such a long beard. Jenkins was only asked to look pretty and sing beautifully, and she carries off both tasks with aplomb.
The point of this episode is letting Smith really cut loose and fully embody the 11th Doctor. Smith takes the opportunity and runs with it, doing everything from clambering down a chimney like Santa Claus to bouncing on a child’s bed. When he spots Sardick’s cloud-controlling machine, the Doctor’s delight is palpable. “Big, flashy, lighty things have got me written all over them,” he smiled as he rushed to the control panel. “Not actually; give me time. And a crayon,” he smiled, mischievously. And of course the Doctor uses crayons! What self-respecting child doesn’t? And make no mistake: The Time Lord is an overgrown child. “I think you’ll find I’m universally recognized as a mature and responsible adult,” the Doctor declared, producing his psychic paper to back up the boast. Sadly, that whopper actually shorted out the psychic paper! “Finally, a lie too big…” the Doctor sighed.
I also loved the sequence in which the Doctor defended Santa. Not only is Santa real, the Doctor knows him as “Geoff,” and produced a photograph of himself with Santa and none other than Albert Einstein at Frank Sinatra’s place in 1952. Priceless!
Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) were sadly mostly absent because there just wasn’t room for them in this story. Instead, the honeymooners sparkled in the opening sequence aboard the ship, in which she sports her policewoman kiss-o-gram costume from “The Eleventh Hour” and he wears his Roman centurion uniform from “The Big Bang” in a sort of winking reference to cosplay. In fact, the entire teaser sequence was a big jape, photographed with plenty of lens flare and a white color scheme that evoked J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek. And the arrival of the TARDIS and its “Come along Pond…” message was a break-into-cheers moment!
At the sinister end of the spectrum, we have the Sky Shark. A wonderfully fanciful yet threatening beasty, it is what it sounds like: a shark that can swim through the air! The moment when the Sky Shark with the sonic screwdriver in its gullet arrived in the freeze chamber reminded me of the crocodile with the alarm clock in its belly stalking Capt. Hook throughout Peter Pan. And, OMG, as if I didn’t already loathe spiders, the Doctor had to go and tell young Kazran about horrid little creatures called a “face spiders,” which have the faces of babues and climb up the backs of wardrobes and hide in mattresses in the middle of the night. I really hope he was just making that up…
In the hierarchy of DW Christmas specials, I place “A Christmas Carol” just ahead of “The Next Doctor,” and follow that with “The Runaway Bride,” “The End of Time” and “The Christmas Invasion.” How do you rank the specials?