Monday, December 27, 2010

Review: Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol

After a triumphant first series from Steven Moffat, Matt Smith and Karen Gillan, Who fans across the country waited with fevered anxiety to see what the Christmas Special would bring. Could the high standard of writing and characterisation which culminated in stories as diverse as Vincent and the Doctor, The Eleventh Hour and The Pandorica Opens possibly be continued?

The unqualified answer to that question has to be no. It was actually surpassed. An hour long assault on our emotions ended with the at least partial redemption of the baddie, and a potentially hopeful new future for the world he controlled. Not the world he was the political head of - no, there was a President who showed a stunning lack of backbone to the person who basically had sole control of a major environmental system. After the events of this week, it kind of made me think about how much power politicians yield to big powerful businessmen with no democratic accountability. But that's enough of Cable v Murdoch.

When the show started, I wondered at first if I'd hit the wrong channel. I mean, half a bottle of decent Chateauneuf du Pape and a generous sherry and it would be an easy mistake to make. I mean, it looked like we were on board the Starship Enterprise. There was even a guy with what could have been a visor sitting where Geordi La Forge should be and the choreographed lurching as the ship crashed its way along its turbulent path looked out of place somehow.

The appearance of Rory and Amy in Roman and kissogram costumes, implying that they were putting the honeymoon suite to good use, was just slightly icky but also very funny.

Also of note was that Arthur Darvill has finally found his way into the title credits so it looks like he's here to stay. I still haven't worked out quite what his character Rory is for, but anyone willing to wait 2000 years guarding the big box his dead girlfriend was being restored in is worth some respect.

We cut from ship in peril to a pseudo Dickensian scene with a Michael Gambon voiceover telling us that at the end of the year, people come together to celebrate being "halfway out of the dark".

Then we're in the narrator's house, and we discover that he's a thoroughly unpleasant, cruel, nasty and heartless man. A man so cruel that when he lends money to poor families, he takes a family member as security and freezes them. Bankers don't look quite as bad now, do they? In a single scene, we see Kazran Sardick (hint of Balkan warlord there?) turn down a humanitarian request from the President to allow the ship carrying Amy and Rory to land, and refuse the poor family's request for their relative to be released for just one day. You shudder at Sardick's malevolent glee as he says "I don't make the rules. Hang on, I do."

One of Moffat's real strengths is being able to portray comedy and tragedy in the same scene, almost in the same sentence, and neither lose their effect. We see it when we realise that omnipotent though Sardick may be, he's not immune from the Doctor coming down his chimney and landing in his fireplace. While he's being all jokey and chatty, showing off photos of Sinatra, Einstein, himself and Father Christmas (whom he calls Geoff. I always thought he was more of a Bernard myself, but never mind) from 1952, he's also sizing up Sardick and telling him that in 900 years of travelling through space, he's never met anyone who's not important.

We see it again when Abigail tells the younger Karzan that she has only one day left to live. While they tearfully embrace, the Doctor, complete with lipstick mark on his cheek and rat pack tuxedo,  is in a tizz because he's apparently promised to marry Marilyn Monroe. Tragedy and comedy together, in perfect proportion.

Just as an aside, it wasn't said, but it crossed my mind that the money Abigail's family borrowed was to pay for her medical bills. And I'm also fairly sure that the Doctor knew what he was doing from the minute he met her, as soon as she said "Doctor? Are you one of mine?"

But I'm moving on too fast. The Doctor realises that simple persuasion and appealing to Sardick's good side isn't going to work. It's only when he's talking to Amy on the phone about Christmas carols that he remembers the Dickensian classic and decides that the only way is to totally reconstruct Sardick's character. Best way to do that? Find the raw material, by going back to the 12.5 year old boy and giving him memories that the modern day Sardick will find embedded in his psyche, even though he hasn't lived through them. And he lets Sardick know what he's doing by recording it all and playing the film back to him in the present day by flitting back and forth through time.

The dialogue between the Doctor and the 12 year old Kazran was hilarious. He found Sardick at a time when he was an extremely compassionate and curious little boy, despite his upbringing from a father who was even crueller than he would grow up to be.  From telling the youngster who had observed that babysitters didn't climb in the windows, the Doctor replied that "If I was climbing out of the window, I'd be going in the wrong direction." He also invented these creatures called face spiders, little arachnid babies' heads whose sole purpose in life was to scuttle up the backs of cupboards (later saying that actually they slept in Kazran's mattress during the day. Then there was the psychic paper which showed Kazran just wavy lines, the Doctor explaining that it had shorted out at the enormity of the lie he'd expected it to tell - that he was a mature, responsible adult.

Moffat also seems to have a thing for giving cameo roles to marine creatures. In The Beast Below, the whale is critical to the plot, but we don't see that much of it. Same too with the shark. It's purpose is to polish off half the Doctor's sonic screwdriver and have Katherine Jenkins sing to it as a plot devices to help them at the end, but the real story is about the people around it. We discovered in Confidential that the prospect of an evolutionary advanced shark appearing in his bedroom gave Moffat nightmares as a child. I wonder what else went through his childish mind, because no doubt it'll come out onto screen at some point.

Katherine Jenkins excelled herself. Of all the Welsh singers they could have chosen, I'm first of all glad it wasn't Charlotte Church. She may have the voice of an angel, but Katherine has the angelic looks and the haunting quality in her voice that was so perfect for this story.

Gambon's portrayal of Sardick was also very clever. You could sense a man who almost felt liberated as much as he was confused by the new memories, looking out the photos taken on his and Katherine's Christmas Eves together, all over the World from the Pyramids to Hollywood.

All that the Doctor only really wanted to change Sardick's character to the point where he'd allow Amy and Rory's ship, with its 4003 passengers to land safely. He'd warned Sardick that they were his priorities at the beginning but I'm not sure that he anticipated the real torment he'd have to put him through. Sardick discovers his compassionate side, but his character has been changed so much that the machine he solely controls doesn't recognise him any more. We're then in a situation where, in order to save people the Doctor loves, he asks Kazran, with the expectation that he'll comply, to sacrfice his last day with the woman he's only recently discovered he's loved all his life.

We can't be too hard on him, though. This is the guy who gave up his own life to save Wilf just a year ago, the guy who gave up his last moments to flitting around his companions bringing good and even life saving fortune. This is the guy whose love ended up in a parallel universe. He knows what intense grief and love feel like so he understands what he's asking Kazran to do. The Doctor thinks that having your heart broken is better than having no heart at all, and he's probably right, but Kazran rightly says to him "you try it"  The Doctor can't make that judgement of course - although of course he in his 9th form was doing what he could to suppress his feelings, grief stricken as he was after the time wars which destroyed his people and home planet.

There is no denying, though, that it's a massive impertinence to go back and visit someone as a child to re-shape their whole life, even if the outcome will ultimately be for their own good and the benefit of many other people. And there was a point when it looked that the Doctor's meddling was not going to work and he had to go to the extreme of bringing the 12 year old Kazran in and asking him if that's how he wanted to grow up.

And all this from the guy who says you can't interfere with the course of history. It's what he always does, of course, but this time it was deeply personal. One question I want answered, though - and we saw this in the Pandorica Opens, too - how can a person and a younger version of themselves interact? In the Pandorica Opens, this is all explained away by the stuff where Amy and Amelia met never actually happened cos the Doctor flew the Pandorica into the exploding TARDIS this restoring time to its normal state. There isn't that get out this time. Even Anna pointed out that there should have been a colony of Reapers there as there were in Father's Day. There is wriggle room from that as the Reapers were there to sort out the mess caused by Pete not dying when he should have done and not the adult Rose being in the same room as the baby Rose. Similarly, you had Ace with her mother as a baby in the Curse of Fenric.

The other thing worth noting is that the conclusion depended on the shark who came into Kazran's bedroom when he was 12.5 surviving for 50 or so years with the sonic screwdriver inside it. You kind of have to wonder why this wasn't disposed of in the usual way we dispose of our waste food.

The ending, where Katherine Jenkins sings a hauntingly beautiful specially written song into the other half of the sonic screwdriver to calm the skies so that the ship can land, is so well done. It made me a bit tearful as it evoked memories of last year's similarly moving end to David Tennant's life as the Doctor. This time, though, there was happiness and optimism. You had Kazran and Abigail having a truly joyful last day together, in the rickshaw, being pulled, sleigh style, by the shark, repeating the ride they'd had on their second day together. You just wonder why they didn't go the whole hog and give the shark a luminous red nose. For the future, though, there's a world without Abigail for Kazran to deal with, but the Doctor hopes that he's pulled him "half way out of the dark", that his newly rediscovered childhood compassion will make him release the many people who still languish in the frozen coffin like boxes in the basement.

This was to my mind the best Christmas Special yet. Anna's favourite episode to date is The Sycorax Invasion, Tennant's first after his regeneration. I'm not so fussed about that, preferring the Voyage of the Damned. A Christmas Carol I think trumps both of them - although the episodes with singers in them are definitely the best.

And don't even get me started on the new season trailer, or I'll be here all night. We've a fun year ahead. I hope the fact that next year's series is going to be shown n two halves is not going to stop us getting a Christmas Special. It has become one of the highlights of Christmas Day.

3 comments:

Will said...

Re: the new series being split into two, a thought occurs.

There exists the possibility - in fact I'd say it's a probability that we're going to end up with a Strictly-Doctor double-whammy.

This means that neither you nor I will be leaving our respective houses on any Saturday night in the Autumn!

As to the continuity issues - and as someone who hated Star Trek: Enterprise for that very same reason, I sympathise - it's worth noting that this isn't the first instance of jiggery-pokery, as the Weeping Angels are far more deadly (though just as terrifying) in the Moffat series than they were in the Davies one: in Blink they just catapulted their unsuspecting victims to 1920s Hull or the like, whereas in The Time of Angels, their victims are pretty much dead. Having said that, I suppose if time can be rewritten, so can continuity, so I can be more forgiving to Moffat than I have been to Berman and Braga. :)

Anyway, hope you're having a good Christmas - pass on my best to the family!

Jennie said...

The Blinovitch Limitation effect (old Karzan hugging young Karzan ought to make the universe implode) CAN be shorted out by the fact that Karzan had changed enough not to be the same man, but it's a bit of a wiggle...

And they're not "reapers", they're VORTISAURS, dammit! Bloody telly series using words for the hard of spelling...

slouchingtowardsthatcham.com said...

The Who Xmas was funny and whimsical, with a tragic love story underpinning rather than overwhelming it. Vastly superior to any special since The Christmas Invasion, and possibly even better than that.

I know some have been complaining that the Xmas special was light, fluffy and relatively meaningless - but I think they miss the point. Xmas episodes are supposed to be light, fluffy and meaningless - we can leave the serious stuff for season six proper.

As for the season six trailer - ooh! Stetsons are cool. The Doctor asks for Jammie Dodgers (what is he going to do - bluff the Daleks again?) And in the shot of him as a bearded prisoner we get a brief glimpse of the lettering spelling out 'Area 51' on a wall behind him. Alien conspiracy theory! I can't wait ...

http://slouchingtowardsthatcham.com/2010/12/26/doctor-who-2010-christmas-special-a-christmas-carol-review/

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