Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Doctor Who Story 217: A Christmas Carol


Father Time Lord...

Now, it seems that a Doctor Who Christmas special is a given. Before The Christmas Invasion, the only real mention of Christmas in Doctor Who that I am aware of was in the lost episode The Feast of Steven from the incomplete story The Daleks' Master Plan. With the revival, we've had besides the aforementioned Christmas Invasion, one special per series/season with none of them involved what used to be the central story of Christmas: the birth of Christ.

Granted, it wouldn't make sense to have a religious holiday be part of a science-fiction program, and I can live with that. Some of the great Christmas movies (It's A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street) have nothing to do with Jesus. It's one thing to celebrate the secular aspects of Christmas, it's another to do what The End of Time did: declare Christmas to be merely a festival of the winter solstice rather than a celebration of someone held to be God in human form. This may be what Richard Dawkins and his cohorts may proclaim, but for a vast majority of people, there is still a faith-based aspect to the holiday.

It was this odd dismissal of the Christ in Christ-Mas that troubled me, as if the whole concept of what Christmas was/is was no longer valid. A baby in a manger, it seems, is simply too controversial and too upsetting to tolerate. I can live and embrace a non-religious acknowledgement of December 24-25, but cannot accept a nearly overt hostility to a central tenet of a faith system. Then again, with regards to The End of Time, we may have been looking at it from a Gallyfreyan perspective, so I shouldn't be too harsh.

In any case, it seemed nearly inevitable that Doctor Who would tackle one of the great Christmas stories, right down to using Charles Dickens' title; a side note: perhaps next year, they'll do a riff of Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory, or maybe Miracle on Regent Street? I confess to a wariness when I heard both the title and the plot of A Christmas Carol, and the trailers didn't ease my fears. However, we have the final product before us. And now, after watching A Christmas Carol, we can see Stephen Moffat drew inspiration not just from the Dickens classic, but apparently, from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Star Trek and even Jaws.

There is a giant spaceship about to crash. Aboard it are Amy Pond-Williams (Karen Gillan, and I added the Williams since she now is married) and her husband Rory (Arthur Darvill). The clouds they are traversing are making it impossible to land safely, and in fact said clouds are what is causing them to descend out of control. The clouds are controlled by one Kazran Sardick (Sir Michael Gambon), a miser of a man who has no interest in the lives about to be lost.

Enter The Doctor (Matt Smith), who at first attempts to persuade Kazran to stop the storm clouds from causing the deaths of 40 thousand people. Kazran is unmoved and tosses the Doctor out. The Doctor is still attempting to come up with a solution when he hears Christmas carols being played over the planet's loudspeakers, and that brings to mind "A Christmas Carol". With that, the Doctor presents himself as The Ghost of Christmas Past, and shows Kazran a film of him going back to the young Kazran. At first Old Kazran has no memory of The Doctor ever coming to him, but as The Doctor starts working with Young Kazran, the memories do flood back.

Those memories involve the beautiful Abigail (opera star Katherine Jenkins). The Young Kazran wants to see the fish that are able to float in the air with the greatest of ease. The Doctor is able to show him this, but he inadvertently attracts a floating shark. They are saved but now the shark can no longer float in the sky. Kazran then remembers Abigail. She is frozen deep within the bowels of Kazran's home (he takes relatives of those with debts as security), and it is her beautiful voice that brings a shark to life.

Kazran is so enraptured that he promises to release her on upcoming Christmases, and in a montage we see the Doctor and Kazran opening up her frozen coffin to spend it with them. Romance develops, but then there is a break when Abigail hints that something will keep them apart. A broken-hearted Kazran seals her in and refuses to release her ever again.

Enter Amy (as a hologram Ghost of Christmas Present). She shows Old Kazran a group of children singing Silent Night, thus showing those who will die if he refuses to soothe the storm clouds he controls. Still, he refuses, for he is angry that his past has been so altered that his memories of Abigail are doomed, for we learn that if he releases her, it will be her last day of life. Some sacrifices are too great to make. The Doctor returns as The Ghost of Christmas Future, but in an unexpected twist it isn't Old Kazran's future we see. Abigail then emerges, and his love for her shows him the error of his ways. It is her voice that saves the day.

I can't fault A Christmas Carol for being incredibly rushed since it only has an hour to pack in a story. I can fault it for being a rather uninteresting, throwing in moments of comedy where they weren't needed.

Take for example when we first see Amy and Rory. For the vaguest of reasons she is wearing her "sexy policewoman" outfit from The Eleventh Hour and he is in his Roman soldier wardrobe from The Big Bang. This is suppose to be their honeymoon and when last we saw them they were in their wedding tuxedo and gown. It's suggested that they wore these outfits as some form of sex game which the storm cloud rudely interrupted, but seeing them in these outfits takes away from what is suppose to be rather serious tones of potential life or death.

This thing with their outfits being comedy relief is enhanced when Amy attempts to be The Ghost of Christmas Present. With all that is going on, with four thousand lives (or perhaps four thousand and two if we count Mr. & Mrs. Williams) hanging in the balance, Rory's biggest concern is that Kazran will get a look up Amy's skirt? Seriously? It would have been better if she had appeared in a nightgown or negligee; it would have kept the honeymoon aspect of the story without having them wear past outfits for little reason other than to remember previous stories.

Another bit of non-comic relief comes courtesy of The Doctor himself, and he does it twice. The first one I recall is when he takes Abigail and Kazran to celebrate Christmas dinner with Abigail's family: the entire routine of 'take a card, any card' to me fell flat. It was neither clever or amusing. The second comes when he takes them to celebrate Christmas in 1962 California. Marilyn Monroe to my mind has suffered quite enough, thank you very much. No, wait, I forgot a third time: when the Doctor chides a child for not believing in Santa Claus/Father Christmas. It so happens the Doctor has met 'Jeff' himself. St. Nick's real name is Jeff. Ha ha.

Even in the moments when it is suppose to be serious, A Christmas Carol can't draw us into the danger. We're told that 4,000 people will die, but in a strange twist we never feel any urgency about it. It may be that it is because we never get to know anyone aboard the ship, or even see the ship apart from the bridge. Somehow, since we get thrown this danger straight from the get-go, we don't get the sense that there is really any danger to begin with; at least I didn't. We just have to accept that people will die, but it all felt rather fake to me.

I put this because the only people we see on the bridge are Amy, Rory, and three crewmembers, and here A Christmas Carol is where it starts echoing other programs. The bridge was far too reminiscent of the Enterprise from Star Trek. There was even a black pilot with a strange eyepiece whom I kept referring to as Geordi LaForge. At least I gave them names (the credits simply read The Pilot, The Captain, The Co-Pilot).

I am willing to wager that director Toby Haynes was not, repeat not trying to spoof Star Trek, but the bridge aboard this crashing ship were so familiar (right down to visualizing on the large screen) that I flat-out wonder how they thought comparisons wouldn't be made.

In short, we really never get a vested interest in saving those aboard the craft because so much of the story is focused on Kazran and Abigail that those up in space are short-shifted. Stephen Moffat to his credit did create a good story where logic is concerned (altering Young Kazran's memories to where Old Kazran would later remember) but again, some things just couldn't be helped. "Back on Earth, we called this Christmas or the Winter Solstice (emphasis mine), Kazran in voice-over tells us.

Really? I don't think of myself as being sheltered, but I don't know anyone who refers to this time as the Winter Solstice. They just can't help themselves, can they, to downplay the religious aspects of Christmas. Honestly, just who refers to this particular celebration as Winter Solstice? When I heard that line, I couldn't help think it was done to placate those who find Christmas (and by extension, Christianity) odious.

There was one line in A Christmas Carol that had me howling with laughter. It is near the end, when Amy shows Kazran the children (think of The Children, won't someone please THINK OF THE CHILDREN) who will die. Side Note: to Moffat and Haynes' credit, the children were singing Silent Night, which may be the first time in the history of Doctor Who were the role of the Christ Child Jesus played in the Christmas story is suggested. Kazran, growling with fury, asks her, "Why are they singing?".

Maybe it's because I'm an American, and maybe it isn't as prevalent in Britain as it is in America, but this line appears to have been stolen from Dr. Seuss. Isn't that what The Grinch said when hearing the Whos on Christmas Day after having stolen all the presents from Who-ville? Was that suppose to be some odd reference that we were suppose to get? You know, "WHO-ville", "Doctor WHO"? It might not be an unfair comparison between Kazran and The Grinch since both their hearts are two sizes too small. That's all I could think of when I heard Kazran ask this. There is also a quick moment when we see a shark fin float past us in the icy fog that was missing two cello notes playing.

Getting aside from some of the sillier aspects of A Christmas Carol, there are certain things I didn't follow. Why did Abigail not mention that her time was running out much sooner? How did Abigail emerge from her frozen state that last Christmas when no one was seen releasing her? Why do we have to see Amy & Rory in silly costumes to begin with?

Since Gillan and Darvill aren't in A Christmas Carol that much, we can't say much about their performances except that we hope Season/Series Six gives them more to do. However, if anything elevates this story it is Gambon and Jenkins. I understand that this is Jenkins' debut as an actress, and she did a wonderful job. Her Abigail projects a sweetness and innocence that is beautiful and heartbreaking.

Gambon, an experienced an actor as we have, doesn't make Kazran all ranting and raging. He does give him bits of a soul, so we can see that he too has been hurt by the past (both pre and post-Doctor). As for Smith, well, I personally could do with a little less of the lightness he's brought to his Doctor, but he certainly has a way with making comedic lines not sound as if they were trying to be funny, so that's a plus.

I couldn't get into the main story because it wasn't about saving any ship: it was about saving Kazran from being evil. A Christmas Carol has only Gambon and Jenkins (and her beautiful singing voice) to make it even a so-so story in the Doctor Who canon. If it weren't for them, A Christmas Carol would have been remarkably lifeless, dull, devoid of any real action and poorly-timed comedy done at super-speed, almost as if we have to do this story because we have to have that Winter Solstice Special.

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