Friday, May 12, 2017

Steven Moffat Fumbles His First Doctor Who Christmas Special With "A Christmas Carol!"

The Good: Guest performances are all right, Most of the special effects
The Bad: Wonky science, Poor character development, Continued goofy performance of The Doctor
The Basics: "A Christmas Carol" is a lackluster Doctor Who adventure that presents The Doctor as a supporting character in his own narrative.

One of the inherent problems with reinventing a character continually is that viewers tend to have a longer memory than executive producers. As a result, fans hold their beloved characters to high standards that producers and writers who are not as tuned into the characters fail to. As Steven Moffat took over as showrunner of Doctor Who, he had a number of moments that seemed to illustrate that he did not care all that much for what came before in the series. When he had his first Doctor Who Christmas Special, I found myself underwhelmed and it took me multiple viewings to realize why exactly the episode - "A Christmas Carol" - did not grab me.

There were two essential aspects of "A Christmas Carol" that left me unimpressed. First, Steven Moffat played The Doctor as Sherlock Holmes in The Doctor's first big expository scene and that level of creative laziness (Moffat was executive producing and writing Sherlock as well at the time) pulls the viewer out of the narrative. But, as the title suggests, "A Christmas Carol" is a Doctor Who reworking of the Charles Dickens classic by the same name. After multiple viewings, I came to realize why the Doctor Who reworking seemed so unimpressive to me. "A Christmas Carol" is a Doctor Who reimagining of a Charles Dickens work . . . without ever referencing that The Doctor met Dickens and had an adventure with Dickens and "ghosts" back in "The Unquiet Dead" (reviewed here!). Given that Doctor Who already did a big Dickens story, the viewer has to expect that if the series is going to do anything Dickens-related, it will be good, clever, and make some acknowledgment of where The Doctor has been before. "A Christmas Carol" does not do that.

Opening with a space ship in the process of crashing, Amy Pond arrives on the bridge from the honeymoon suite, followed by Rory. The TARDIS arrives to rescue them. The ship is about to crash on a planet that is effectively run by Kazran Sardick. Sardick is refusing to release a woman frozen in suspended animation to her family for Christmas dinner. The Doctor arrives in Sardick's drawing room, where he discovers he cannot manipulate the controls that would allow Sardick's controls to save the falling ship because the controls are isomorphic and respond only to Sardick. The Doctor wants to save the four thousand three people on the falling ship, while Sardick is resistant to getting involved.

After The Doctor psychoanalyzes Sardick when the old man does not smack a kid he's kicking out of his home, he journeys in time to Sardick's past to learn about the system that could be used to save the ship in the future. The planet, The Doctor learns, uses a weather system that keeps fish in the atmosphere at bay and he accompanies the younger version of Sardick on a bit of an adventure. The pair are attacked by a flying shark, which eats The Doctor's sonic screwdriver, and young Kazran is so invested in saving the life of the shark that he reveals the family's "ice box," which is storing the planet's surplus population. As The Doctor figures out how Sardick became such a bitter old man, he works to save the falling ship in the future.

"A Christmas Carol" begins Steven Moffat's obsession with placing "magic" above science in Christmas episodes and that is incredibly unsatisfying in this context. The fish in the atmosphere on the alien world, including the shark that comes down below, are kept in check by the singing of Abigail's singing. When The Doctor tries to explain the science behind it, he is told to shut up by the young Sardick and he is bitten into submission by flying fish.

The Doctor and the growing Sardick return each Christmas to unfreeze the imprisoned Abigail to go on adventures with her, which basically uses up her life and creates a time that is basically a self-contained "lost Companion" type scenario. While that plays in an interesting way for this specific adventure, it completely undermines the impact of Amy and Rory as The Doctor's Companions in this adventure. The Doctor ditches his loyal, best friends for a self-contained adventure that exists, theoretically, to save his Companions but instead has an adventure largely without them.

The science of "A Christmas Carol" is a bit wonky. While I can live with the idea of The Doctor going back and altering the past of (essentially) the episode's protagonist, "A Christmas Carol" falls down in its execution. The Doctor goes into Sardick's past to have adventures with Sardick and Abigail, but the net effect of it is unchanged. What makes no sense with the changes to Sardick's timeline is that Sardick in the future only has his memories changed, as opposed to the character developing differently as a result of his experiences. In other words, young Sardick's life does not change and he does not grow in a different direction as a result of his having experiences with The Doctor and Abigail, which is an utterly ridiculous construct.

On the character front, "A Christmas Carol" is a preposterous exercise for The Doctor. The Doctor tells the crew of the falling ship to sing for their lives, illustrating he has influence over the crew and enough time to interact with the falling Galaxy-class ship. In the time it takes to go through the convoluted adventure in rewriting Kazran Sardick's timeline, The Doctor could have landed the TARDIS on the falling ship and gotten all of the people there inside the TARDIS to safely evacuate them. That solution would not have negated the disaster that called him to the event, but would have saved all of the people in peril without the very convoluted solutions he comes up with.

While "A Christmas Carol" is a wonderful excuse to present Katharine Jenkins's amazing voice, the episode is a contrived adventure that makes a poor use out of the principle characters. While I can, generally, live with episodes that explore supplemental characters, Steven Moffat seems to want to play in the Doctor Who universe without using the characters there well. His episodes flesh out one-shot characters or recurring characters to the detriment of the main cast members. As a result, The Doctor stumbles through "A Christmas Carol" being overshadowed on every front by the supporting characters.

Between that and the contrived nature of the conflict (it doesn't seem to occur to The Doctor to get a cure for Abigail!), "A Christmas Carol" is one of the initially-fun episodes of Doctor Who that ages incredibly poorly with any analysis.

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Sixth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the sophomore season of Matt Smith as The Doctor here!

For other Doctor Who Christmas episodes, please check out my reviews of:
"The Christmas Invasion"
"The Husbands Of River Song"
"Last Christmas"


For other Doctor Who episode and movie reviews, please visit my Doctor Who Review Index Page!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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