A Christmas Carol
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All photos © BBC
Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
or the first Christmas special of his era of “Doctor Who,” nobody can accuse Steven Moffat of playing it safe. That’s not to imply that he delivered a piece of holiday fare that’s in any way dangerous, but rather that he broke so far away from the types of stories that Russell T. Davies served up for the holiday season that some viewers may have found the resulting tale to be a tad disorientating. But if there’s a major hallmark that Moffat has stamped on the series so far during his brief tenure, it’s disorientation. You’ve either got to get onboard or be left behind. My advice would be to go with the former, otherwise you’re liable to miss out on what should be some great “Doctor Who” when Season Six kicks off in (presumably) a couple months.
“A Christmas Carol” is not a direct riff on the Dickens tale, but rather an adventure that’s directly inspired by the Doctor’s (Matt Smith) awareness of Dickens. As you might recall, the Ninth Doctor met Dickens way back in Season One, and he professed to be his biggest fan. And although that meeting is never mentioned, clearly Moffat has taken it, and the Doctor’s fandom, into account.
The action begins on a crashing space liner (which has a very “Star Trek: The Next Generation” feel to it), aboard which is Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill), who are celebrating their honeymoon. Moffat isn’t above throwing some innocent kink into the mix by putting Amy into her kiss-o-gram uniform and Rory into his Roman soldier digs, which is all good clean fun, and the sort of stuff Moffat revels in. The ship barrels down onto a planet with about an hour until it hits the surface, but the Doctor can’t lock onto it with the TARDIS, so he must head down to the planet and work from there. He discovers a world that appears Victorian, but in reality is an advanced Earth colony, lorded over by a horribly selfish man named Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon).
Sardick controls the skies over Sardicktown and holds the key to its atmosphere, which can be altered to keep the ship from crashing. Problem is, he simply doesn’t care. The main villain for this tale isn’t an alien race invading something or other, but rather an obnoxious old man with no particular agenda outside of wanting to be left alone in his seemingly self-inflicted misery. This alone makes “A Christmas Carol” utterly unique for “Doctor Who,” and I certainly can’t come up with another scenario from the show’s long history that’s anything quite like it. Faced with an increasingly dire situation, the Doctor, in a moment of inspiration, decides to play the Ghost of Christmas Past, so he jumps into the TARDIS and goes back in time to meet Sardick when he was a boy and begins altering the man’s history, all while the Sardick in the present watches the action in movie form.
The story, as we’ve come to expect from Moffat, isn’t nearly as simple as that. It twists and turns like a twisty-turny thing (thank you, Richard Curtis, for that little gem), moving from one direction to the next, including a poignant child abuse angle. Moffat, on the accompanying “Doctor Who Confidential,” claims that it’s a story “that you’d only want to watch at Christmas,” but if that’s so, why have I found myself getting an immense amount of pleasure out of watching it repeatedly, regardless of the fact that it’s already February? Make no mistake, come next Christmas, I’ll carve an hour into my schedule for it, but I can’t guarantee the last viewing of it I had is actually going to be the last one before the holidays.
It’s properly weird and gothic, whilst simultaneously being drenched in romance and holiday spirit, as well as loaded with flying fish and sharks. You’ll not find anything else like it, anywhere. Toby Haynes, who expertly helmed the Season Five two-part finale, is in the director’s chair again. Damn this guy’s good. This particular outing has an almost Terry Gilliam-esque quality to it. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily a good thing for “Doctor Who,” especially when you consider how unresponsive the masses usually are to Gilliam’s work, but it’s one of the coolest things that could ever happen to the show for this fan.
The cast is uniformly excellent, although the hour really belongs to Smith and Gambon. For Smith, this was the first story he’d shot since being “accepted” as the Doctor by viewers, and I think it shows. There’s a confidence on display here that may not have been quite as obvious in his freshman season. He’s on fire from the word go, cracking wise right and left, so quickly sometimes that the subtitle option on this disc comes in real handy. There are also some dark sides to him here, and if anything the Eleventh Doctor is fast becoming the master manipulator, and I can’t help but think this is going to come crashing down on him at some point. There’s a line that’s said to him late in the game that I would swear hints at painful times to come. Gambon is equally mesmerizing, and never plays an even remotely false note. It seems as if he’s inspiring the rest of the cast to rise to a higher level of work just with his very presence. If you’ve only seen him as Dumbledore, then you haven’t seen what Gambon can really do.
The third major player is Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins, who you may never have heard of prior to this (I certainly hadn’t), yet you may just find yourself looking into her music once the end credits roll. Gorgeous voice the lady has, and she’s incredibly easy on the eyes. Of course, Gillan and Darvill also do good work, but they’re both very much supporting players relegated to the background for this outing. One guy who hasn’t really gotten his due, but deserves some kudos, is Danny Horn, who plays the teenage Kazran. His portrayal of the Sardick-in-flux brings a great deal of emotional resonance to the proceedings and shouldn’t be dismissed simply because he isn’t Gambon.
Obviously, this disc is recommended, although I have to admit that I was a tad disappointed in the graininess of some of the imagery here, which is mostly noticeable in the darker areas of the image. The Season Five set was such a revelation in terms of picture quality, and I’m not quite sure why this isn’t as tight in that arena. (The sound sure is.) Beyond that, this will eventually find its way onto the Season Six box set, so you’ll have to decide whether you want to buy it twice. According to TVShowsonDVD.com, when this happens it won’t include all of the extras presented here. So what are the extras, you ask?
Special Features: There are two extras here, both are presented in HD, and each is nearly an hour, which makes the total running time of this disc close to three hours. The first is the aforementioned “Doctor Who Confidential,” which is great fun as it exhaustively chronicles the making of this episode, with plenty of little detours along the way. The second is the wonderful “Doctor Who at the Proms” concert from 2010, which features Gillan, Darvill and Smith, who’s both in and out of character at different points. It’s pretty lame that nobody saw fit to include the entire concert, especially since it even played in its entirety on BBC America. About a half hour’s worth of classical music has been trimmed out, leaving just Murray Gold’s tunes, which were pretty phenomenal in Season Five. Oh, it’s still very, very good, and it’s particularly nice to get it in HD this time, as the last Proms was featured in SD, but would it have been that difficult to include the full show?
It would seem the obvious choice of these to excise for the Season Six set would be the concert, but it’s also possible they’ll present only a cut down version of the “Confidential.” It’s anyone’s guess at this point, although, as I understand it, the DVD and Blu-ray releases for Season Six are going to get a whole lot more complicated than that before the year is over. Rumor has it that we’ll be getting three sets for Season Six – two barebones sets for each half of the season (which will air in the spring and autumn), and then a complete season set with all the bells and whistles at Christmas. Merd.