Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol

“Halfway out of the dark…”

This whole episode looks bloody fantastic, from the opening bit of CGI showing a very cloudy planet, to the many shots of fish swimming about in the air, to the brilliantly imagined futuristic yet utterly Dickensian style. Best of all, it all feels so very Christmassy, in spite of the spaceship captain saying that “Christmas is cancelled.”

The aforementioned ship is about to crash on to the aforementioned planet, which is causing a bit of bother for the captain and her crew, including one strangely Geordi La Forge- like person. Fortunately, on board the honeymoon suite are Amy and Rory Pond, both dressed rather interestingly. Never before on Doctor Who have we been given so much insight into the sexual peccadilloes of our regulars…

On the surface (which, I have to emphasise again, looks magnificent), we hear a voiceover which describes Christmas is very evocative (and very secular) terms. This is being delivered by the great Michael Gambon in tones which are far more cockneyfied, we’ll later discover, than they were in his youth. His character traits can be summed up as “right miserable git” and “mardyarse” (A word which, incidentally, cannot be legally used by anyone hailing from south of the Watford Gap. I’ve noticed much flouting of that law in recent years.). The current targets of his gittishness are a poor family whose surname may in fact be Cratchit after all (Abigail, who we haven’t met yet, is a Pettigrew, but her sister’s married name might not be). Their relative has spent a generation in suspended animation as “security” for a loan, and miserable old Kazran Sardick (great name) won’t even let her out for Christmas. Come to think of it, he won’t even lift a finger to save 4,003 people on a spacecraft above, two of whom are Amy and Rory, something he could easily do, even at the personal request of the president.

Enter the Doctor. Through a chimney, naturally. He seems to get clean rather suspiciously quickly, but makes quite an impression. Sadly, Sardick is impressed. The controls which could save the ship are isomorphic (ha!), the Doctor can’t just use the TARDIS for some reason, and Sardick is still being a git. Fortunately, the Doctor hears a Christmas carol at that precise moment and an idea suddenly comes to him. Gosh. I wonder what it could be?

The Ghost of Christmas past starts by using the fact that Sardick was unable to strike the son of the poor family, being haunted by the memory of his own abusive father. Playing timey-wimey tricks with footage may be a bit of a favourite Moffat trick but he still manages, as here, to find fresh slants on it. The scenes of the Doctor insinuating himself into the young Kazran’s life, while the older Sardick feels his memories change even as he watches the screen, are just wonderful.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Matt Smith’s Doctor has a fantastic rapport with kids; the scenes with the young Kazran are great. The best bit, of course, is when the Doctor assures him that “I think you’ll find I’m universally recognised as a mature and responsible adult”, only to find that’s a lie too big even for the psychic paper.

After doing a spot of fishing in Kazran’s room (as you do), the Doctor finds out that he may have bitten off more than he can chew. In fact, it’s a whopper, and the scenes with the Doctor and young Kazran being menaced by the shark are hilarious. I love Matt Smith’s Doctor.

But soon the shark is dying, unable to survive outside the clouds for long. Fortunately, though, there’s an “icebox” downstairs and, with a little bit of timey-wimeyness, they manage to move the shark inside one of the caskets for those poor unfortunates being frozen as “security”. The person making way for the shark, as fate and / or plot convenience would have it, is Abigail, who can certainly sing a bit. She’s the same girl, coincidentally, whom the elder Sardick was so gittish about earlier. But what do those numbers mean on the side of her casket…?

The three of them have a bit of fun travelling in the TARDIS, Kazran takes a bit of a shine to this gorgeous woman, and they end up doing it again and again, Christmas Eve after Christmas Eve, in what is a lovely advertisement of the Doctor’s lifestyle. But, as we know, the Doctor’s lifestyle carries a price, and Abigail’s fondness for the older and much more besotted Kazran is fated to end in tragedy. While the Doctor merrily enjoys his lifestyle (is the whole thing about Marilyn Monroe a bit of a metaphor about how he always runs away from commitment, or am I reading too much into this?), Abigail tells Kazran a secret which breaks his heart. Suddenly, he coldly dismisses the Doctor, never wanting to see him again. We’ve all guessed what the secret is by now, of course, but Kazran’s obvious devastation is no less affecting.

We also get a nice “Cratchit family” scene, of course, with Tiny Tim being unimpressed by the Doctor’s card tricks, and the Doctor’s advice to the adolescent Kazran on how to handle his first kiss is the funniest thing ever. Moffat’s given us some first class scripts before, but they’ve tended to be rather intricate and plotty in nature. This is his first triumph of mixing humour, sentiment and real emotional depth, I think. It’s very Christmassy and superbly judged, but there’s real emotional depth here.

Amy, of course, is the Ghost of Christmas Present, and it’s she who is told why Sardick remains unreformed. The Doctor has forced Abigail into his life and broken his life. She has but one day to live. How is Sardick to decide which day it is to be? The way the Doctor assumes the role of Ghost of Christmas Future, and breaks this impasse, is not only very, very clever in its timey-wimeyness but pitch-perfect in terms of the characters, their development and the themes. For the young Kazran to hear his older self spit out his bleak and selfish soul, bitterly asserting that “I’ll die cold, alone and afraid. Of course I will, we all do”, is quite eyebrow-raisingly powerful for a Christmas prime time family show, yet it works perfectly. The only thing left is for the plot to require Abigail to be woken, and sure enough: it happens.

There’s a happy ending; 4,003 lives are saved. But Moffat refuses the temptation to save Abigail, something I think is well-judged. This may be very sad, but beautiful things often are.

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