Mike’s bang-up-to-date review of A Christmas Carol

[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]

With the new Series 6 of Doctor Who kicking off in two days’ time, we’ve been watching our way through all the previous Eleventh Doctor episodes.  Having finished with Series 5 a few days ago, tonight we watched the Christmas special, A Christmas Carol.

And it really is the most extraordinary piece of television.I’ve rhapsodised about Matt Smith’s portrayal of The Doctor enough times now that it won’t take anyone by surprise when I say that he absolutely shines through this episode, even when he’s bumbling and clueless.  His Doctor is much less consumed with his own importance than previous actors have shown him, much more likely to admit that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing; and yet, paradoxically, he carries more weight.  When the Bad Guy says that one of the other characters is “no-one special”, The Doctor replies “Blimey, that’s amazing. You know that in nine hundred years of time and space and I’ve never met anybody who wasn’t important before.”  In the hands of certain other Doctors — let’s say for example a hypothetical one named Schmavid Schmennant — that line would have been histrionic, overplayed, a big look-at-me moment.  Smith plays it very differently: he says it as though he is genuinely puzzled by the idea, and as a result the line is haunting and moving.

It’s strange for me now to look back at how outraged I was at Matt Smith’s casting when I first heard about it and saw photos of this skinny kid; and to see how reserved I was about him after seeing The Eleventh Hour: “Because his version of the Doctor is so Tennantish, it’s hard to make any meaningful assessment of Smith at this stage.  I find myself struggling to find much to say about his Doctor that is specific to him.”  What the heck was I thinking?  I certainly was dumb back then.

(An aside: my friend Matt Wedel once observed to me: “About every three or four months I realize that I’ve spent my entire life up until ‘now’ being a dumbass; the problem is that ‘now’ keeps moving and every time I think I’ve finally got everything figured out, I later determine that I was/am still a moron.  I distinctly remember having this feeling for the first time in third grade, age of eight, and I keep hoping it will eventually go away, but that hope seems increasingly unfounded.”)

But I wouldn’t want to give the impression that Smith leaves the rest of the cast trailing in his wake.  He is unquestionably the episode’s centre of gravity, but everything that orbits around him is perfectly judged, too: among the supporting cast, Michael Gambon is much more persuasive as Grumpy Old Kazran Sardick than he’s ever been as Kindly Old Professor Dumbledore, and Laurence Belcher is genuinely likeable as Young Kazran.  Maybe more surprising is that singer Katherine Jenkins is perfectly serviceable in her first acting outing.

The sets and costumes contribute to making a siller-than-usual planet seem, if not actually believable then at at least suspend-disbelievable; and the music (which can sometimes be a weak point in Who) is perfectly judged throughout.  The upshot of all this is that a scene like the one above, in which Katherine Jenkins sings a flying shark to sleep in a cryogenic chamber, is truly emotional rather than, as you’d expect, just too silly to work.  I expected to laugh a lot during the episode, and wasn’t disappointed; but I didn’t expect to cry, and I was surprised.

I would love to talk about my two favourite moments, but it would be nearly impossible to do that without spoilering.  I will just say that what happens after The Doctor tells Old Kazran that he’ll be back made me laugh immoderately, so much so that I missed several of the jokes that followed; and that the way Christmas Future was handled took me completely by surprise.

In fact the whole episode surprised me in this sense: that I never expect the Christmas Special to be very interesting.  Looking back over the last few years, we had the horribly overblown and incoherent End of Time  in 2009, the workaday The Next Doctor in 2008 (with the silly giant cyberman at the end), the celebrity guest vehicle Voyage of the Damned in 2007 (maybe the low-point among all Davies’s episodes), and the much-derided Runaway Bride in 2006.  You have to go all the way back to the first reboot season in 2005, and David Tennant’s debut in The Christmas Invasion, for one that stands out — and even then, you have to wonder how much of its appeal was down to Tennant’s storming post-rejuvenation scene in the Sycorax hall.

So A Christmas Carol is really not what we’ve come to expect, and it’s worth asking why.  And at the risk of shooting badgers in a barrel, one can hardly help but notice that all the previous Christmas specials were written by Russell T. Davies.  My ambivalence about Davies’s writing is on record (part 1, part 2), but I think that Christmas brings out the very worst of his writing.  It’s been suggested, I think by Andrew Rilstone, that after the very effective Army of Ghosts/Doomsday two-parter that ended the Rose era, Davies was basically done with telling the story that he wanted to tell, and was increasingly directionless from then on.  I think that idea holds up well, and it’s seen most strongly in his concept of what constitutes a “special” episode: sound and fury, signifying nothing.  The idea seems generally to have been to pile on more explosions and emotions (or “explotions”, if you will).  In contrast to Davies’s spectacle-for-the-sake-of-spectacle specials, A Christmas Carol feels intimate, a chamber piece.  You can imagine a very effective adaptation of it for the stage, with Present and Past at stage left and stage right, and the Doctor nipping back and forth between them; now try to imagine a stage adaptation of Voyage of the Damned.  (On second thoughts, don’t.)  Less is more: Moffat’s big moments feel big compared with what surrounds them; the characters feel important because there are few enough of them that we can care.

So all in all, I rate A Christmas Carol a triumph, despite its intrinsic silliness, and to my enormous surprise it’s near the top of my all-time favourite episodes.  For all the flying-shark accoutrements, it’s essentially the tale of a shrivelled, withered heart being awoken, against its will, by love and shame and the desire to be something better.  Now that is a story.  And not one that we expect a Christmas Special of the kids’ sci-fi show to tell us.