|In this scene, Clara is cleverly disguised as a carrot.|
It’s December 25th, 2010. This year it’s The X-Factor setting the Christmas #1 again with “When We Collide,” with Take That, The Black Eyed Peas, and Rihanna also charting, the latter twice. In news, since we said goodbye to Sarah Jane Smith researchers at CERN captured antimatter for a sixth of a second, the Eurozone bailed Ireland out, Wikileaks released a quarter-million American diplomatic cables, and a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia, setting off a wave of protests that would eventually jump to several other countries and become known as the Arab Spring.
While on television, Steven Moffat has his first Christmas special. In some ways, at least, A Christmas Carol seems designed to confound expectations. In hindsight this seems like Moffat starting the 2011 run of Doctor Who as he meant to go on, although at the time it just seemed surprising. Russell T Davies had often made Christmas specials slightly offset from their seasons, typically through the use of guest companions, but the stories tended to be about the larger emotional arc of Doctor Who. The Christmas Invasion, of course, wasn’t offset at all, instead being in every sense the first episode of Season Two. The Runaway Bride is largely about dealing with Rose’s departure. Voyage of the Damned is less enmeshed in its immediate context, but then, it doesn’t really have any context beyond “Kylie.” And The Next Doctor is firmly about the denouement of the Tennant years.
A Christmas Carol, on the other hand, has nothing whatsoever to do with anything going on around it save for its trick for moving Amy and Rory to supporting roles. Actually, that’s not quite true. Little details flit about and haunt the narrative – the emphasis on the word “silence” in the story’s bespoke pop song, for instance, and the way in which the ending reads in light of the whole “Doctor’s death” plotline. But these details don’t even connect to anything – they just add a slightly unsettling pall to the entire affair for the sorts of obsessives who might notice them. For the most part, this is what it appears to be: an almost entirely bespoke Christmas special that unabashedly and unsubtly pulls its entire structure from the single most recognizable Christmas story in all of literature and, for that matter, television/film.
This gets at the other significant shift since the Davies era. Davies did Christmas specials in which Christmas was essentially a bit of decoration. The extent to which Christmas matters to a given story varies a bit, but the truth is that any of the Davies-era Christmas specials could have been done as non-Christmas episodes with only a minimum of changes. This story, however, is inconceivable in any context other than Christmas. It’s not just a story set at Christmas, it’s a story that’s very much about Christmas, and, more broadly, about Christmas stories.
In terms of the overall health of the show, it’s a masterstroke. Season Five, for reasons having essentially nothing to do with its own qualities or, for that matter, popularity steadily declined in the ratings, going out with a slightly unnerving whimper. It was, in other words, a very sane time to use the enlarged audience that comes with a Christmas special to do what Vampires of Venice aimed to do: provide a straightforward entry point that put the show’s best foot forward and announced “here’s what we’re doing these days” to an audience that could be assumed to be broadly interested in Doctor Who but for whatever reason a bit apathetic about actually watching it.
But in all of this it’s easy to understate the bravado involved. In tackling A Christmas Carol straight on in this manner. It does, after all, set Doctor Who up to directly compare itself to both the Disney and Looney Tunes casts, Sesame Street, the Muppets, and a host of more serious adaptations. This is very, very well-worn ground, on which it would seem near impossible for Doctor Who to distinguish itself. It would be like Doctor Who taking on Star Trek, which, notably, it does here more or less for a sight gag. Which more or less sums up this story: it’s thoroughly, imperiously confident that it can deliver what it wants to.
Part of it is that the story is quietly set up to play to all of the show’s strengths. Matt Smith’s Doctor is foregrounded with the first bit of writing to be planned out entirely after everyone had seen his performance, and so he gets loads of content that’s carefully tailored to him. Suddenly the awkward “the Doctor has zero understanding of girls” stuff skyrockets, because Smith plays that in a way Tennant never could. The Doctor is suddenly tumbling out of fireplaces, and the episode luxuriates in the sequence, giving Smith several minutes of pure showboating.
But beyond that, the writing is there to back it all up. It’s one of those things that is screamingly obvious once you’ve seen it done, but the iconography of a Christmas episode plays to Moffat’s strengths, giving him a platform where his instincts towards the “fairy tale” are perfectly justified. The appropriation of a structure from Dickens lets the more textual, literary tone that the show has developed over 2010 express itself comfortably. And, perhaps most importantly, the tone of a Christmas special means that Moffat gets to be funny. Moffat is, as ever, very good at being funny. And he absolutely packs it in here – jokes are piled high, but more to the point, piled deep, crammed into little nooks and crannies of scenes such that the story rewards rewatching because it’s almost certain that something new will jump out at you.
And, of course, there’s the casting. Katherine Jenkins is not an enormously strong actress, but her role is clearly written so that she doesn’t have to be in order to get it work, and what it does require – charm and beauty – she has in spades. But of course the real star is Michael Gambon. The series’ capacity for stunt casting is by 2010 quite solid, so it can’t really be called a surprise anymore that it can get an actor of Gambon’s quality and reputation, but this is one of the most magnificently well-honed bits of stunt casting the show has done. Gambon has two very obvious qualities that he brings. First, he’s an obviously good fit for the Ebeneezer Scrooge role. Second, he’s, somewhat astonishingly, never actually played it (although he did voice the Ghost of Christmas Present in an execrable 2001 version).
And, of course, the script gives him material that he can get his teeth into, letting him flit from drama to melodrama with aplomb. One minute he’s being an over the top Iain Duncan Smith parody, the next he’s selling “a man who’s having his memories changed,” then he gets to be the viewer behind the sofa shouting at the Doctor to be careful, and after that he’s wordlessly communicating all the consequences of the Doctor’s changes to his life as he weeps over old photographs. When the script requires him to be over the top he rises to it, but equally important, if not moreso, is the way that he can handle things like the “how do I choose what day” material, where going over the top even a little bit would kill the entire episode stone dead.
The result marks a significant shift in the goals of the show. The Davies era was full of emotional storytelling, but in almost every case it was about taking ordinary emotions and setting them in an epic, sci-fi context. This story, however, asks something very different: the audience is expected to learn to empathize with Kazran as he experiences fundamentally bizarre things that are outside the realm of human experience. The question of when you choose to spend your last day with the woman you love is one that barely has a reference point in human experience. More even than “what is it like to be the last of your kind,” which is really just a special case of loneliness, the bizarre and isolating power that Kazran has is something that is genuinely uncanny. This reflects a fundamental shift in the series. Davies elevated common emotion and drama to the epic. Moffat, on the other hand, takes austere and unfathomable circumstances and makes them human. And with Gambon he has an actor who can sell that impeccably.
Underneath this is a structure Moffat is well suited to. More than a few people have noted that the underlying premise of this story is recycled from his Virgin-era short story “Continuity Errors,” but this ignores the way in which Moffat layers the script with carefully planted setups and revelations. The fact that the isomorphic controls are one giant feint is clever enough, but it’s one of several things that are slyly flagged and built to. Most notable is the use of Laurence Belcher’s child Kazran for the payoff of the Ghost of Christmas Future section, having Kazran shoot down the traditional depiction of that as insufficient only to have the concept reinterpreted brilliantly.
Which brings us inevitably to all the timey-wimey stuff. This is, of course, a structure Moffat is already skilled at, having done non-linear narratives in practically every show he’d written prior to Doctor Who. The step from that to larking about with time paradoxes is ultimately tiny. It’s not quite one of Moffat’s puzzleboxes, but the underlying skills are the same. With the structure of the story inherited from Dickens, the story largely stops being about “how will the Doctor save Amy and Rory” and rather becomes “how will the Doctor redeem Kazran.” And the usual trick at the heart of a nonlinear story – building everything around an unrevealed central moment such that the climax clicks everything around it into place – gets to work with a new spin, letting its narrative strands come together in a more unexpected way (and, notably, one free from having to be excessively telegraphed, since it is ultimately a rewriting of time).
As with The Eleventh Hour, this is a story that has a job that it has to do perfectly, and as with The Eleventh Hour it strides out with considerable confidence and finesse and does exactly that. It has to show that this version of Doctor Who has new tricks that it can play, and it does just that. Where The Eleventh Hour was all about superficially changing nothing while quietly shifting some fundamental aspects of the show, this is about showing that Doctor Who has received a more or less complete overhaul. Put it side by side with The End of Time Part One and it looks like a completely different show.
But one consequence of following Davies, and in particular of picking up just after the show’s all-time peak in popularity is that the Moffat era never really has an imperial phase. No matter what he does, Moffat cannot possibly hit any higher than “the show is still very good.” It was never going to have a period where everything it touched turned to gold and it felt like the future of television. Except, perhaps, right here. This quintet of episodes directed by Toby Haynes that we are now at the midpoint of are particularly strong, and, spread out as they are, offer a few months in which the show seemed to buzz with potential. The nature of any imperial phase is, of course, to end. But right here, right now, Doctor Who truly seemed like an absolutely extraordinary show. Certainly it had an impact on me – this is pretty much the moment I decided to pull the trigger and embark on the self-evidently ludicrous plan of adding a Doctor Who blog to a writing schedule that was already full to bursting with The Nintendo Project.
And it’s easy to see why. A Christmas Carol combines a determination to do new things with a confidence that it can make them all work, and for sixty-one minutes it does exactly that. It’s not quite right to call it another imperial phase, because that’s clearly not the point at this juncture. This is something more interesting: a show that has the potential and ability to, on its day, be absolutely extraordinary. The good faith that the Moffat era accrues here will see it through no shortage of dodgy moments over the next two seasons. By this point it’s clear that the Moffat era can and will have moments where it turns up and is unabashedly the best damn thing on television. Yes, it’s going to falter – the sheer quality of this run of five episodes couldn’t possibly be sustained anyway. But failing at something hard and brave is an altogether tolerable sort of failure. Especially when you succeed just as often as you land on your face.