Doctor Who’s a funny beast these days, being as it is right back at the heart of the television schedule. And the Christmas Special is a funnier beast still: its job is not only to appeal to the eight or thereabouts million people who watch the series on a week-in week-out basis through the year, but also to entertain a further three million Christmas Day viewers who might never otherwise see the show.
For his first Christmas Special in charge, writer and showrunner Steven Moffat has unashamedly aimed his episode at that latter demographic; A Christmas Carol offers little new to seasoned observers, but instead plays out as almost a Greatest Hits package for the uninitiated. All of which is not to say that there isn’t plenty for Doctor Who fans to enjoy – in fact quite the opposite. If you like Doctor Who, you should love A Christmas Carol. And if you’re not a regular viewer, this is exactly the kind of advertisement for the programme that might get you coming back for more at Easter.
Moffat’s central conceit is to take the theme of Dickens’ classic and invert it in the way that only this show can manage. There’s a lovely moment of postmodern self-awareness, as the Doctor himself realises that this is what the script’s about to do, and announces it (more or less) to camera. Thereafter, the remainder of the sixty minutes could be forgiven for being something of a romp (particularly after the early sequence with Amy and Rory), but Moffat also takes a page from his predecessor Russell T Davies’ book, and instead creates something warmer and more affecting than we’ve become used to under the new stewardship. Further than that, Amy and Rory are immediately sidelined almost completely from the episode, in order that the Doctor can then spend the rest of the episode with the usual one-off “Christmas Companion”, a seasonal tradition.
Enter Michael Gambon, and Katherine Jenkins. Gambon is a piece of genius casting, one of the great actors of our time, and one who unites both children and adults in recognition, from his appearances in both the Harry Potter films and The Singing Detective. He’s the emotional centre of the episode, and his performance more than carries it. Katherine Jenkins, on the other hand, appears to have been chosen as a reminder to viewers of Kylie Minogue’s role in the Christmas Special of three years previous: like Kylie, Jenkins is better known as a singer, but unlike Kylie, this is Jenkins’ first attempt at acting. She carries it off with aplomb; subtle and understated, she never attempts to do more than she’s capable of, and the script never asks her to. Opposite Gambon and Matt Smith, Jenkins never looks out of her depth and it’s a credit to everyone concerned that with these three in the leads, the episode becomes perhaps the most moving story Doctor Who has ever told.
There isn’t a lot for the kiddies to latch onto; however; once the setup is introduced, A Christmas Carol is very much a character piece. There are some (literally) flying fish, and of course the sharks, but it’s only Matt Smith’s brilliant turn as the charismatically odd eleventh Doctor (and some spectacular special effects) that will hold their attention. Never mind, because this episode isn’t really for them – they’ll be watching anyway, as long as the words Doctor Who appear at the top of the hour. This episode is unashamedly a chance for Steven Moffat to show those three million floating viewers what the programme can do. With his usual wibbly-wobbly storyline (complete with a neat reverse at the end, just to catch the regular viewers off-guard) – and the usual, Moffat-copyrighted “clever” pyrotechnics designed to paper over the cracks in the logic (that you could probably drive a shark-led sleigh through) – A Christmas Carol does its job wonderfully well. It’s among the very best that Steven Moffat has yet offered us (and certainly impresses a lot more than the previous series did), and shows a lot of promise for what’s to come. Let’s hope those three million extra Christmas Day viewers decide to stick around for the ride.
Space and Time
With some pretty lewd jokes, a story that riffs on Logopolis and Blink (complete with reams of snappy dialogue and dual roles for all three regulars), and a resolution that is so Steven Moffat-by-numbers it seems almost like a joke at his own expense, this short charity sketch (for Comic Relief 2011) seems designed to antagonise fans and entertain casual viewers in equal measure. It’s like Time Crash’s narcissistic cousin (but this time with the TARDIS crew admiring themselves rather than their predecessors), and hopefully it’s the last time we’ll see this Doctor’s double turning up to save himself – although I expect not, somehow.