Friday, 21 January 2011

"A Christmas Carol"

Our sixth Christmas with the Time Lord is the first to be helmed by Steven Moffat. In keeping with his view of the programme as a ‘dark fairytale’, we have him doing a version of the most famous Christmas story since the first one. As I said a year ago, Victorian Christmases seem to be the most Christmassy of all, and a lot of this is due to the fact that the festival (as the Anglophone world knows it) was a product of the Victorian era and Charles Dickens’s reading of it in particular. Of course, the use of Dickens’s novella has to be a conscious reference- the Doctor has met Dickens after all- but Moffat has to take this very familiar story and make it seem fresh. Does he succeed? Well...

A (typically) awesome pre-titles sequence brings up to speed. The ship that Amy and Rory are honeymooning on is diving into the deadly atmosphere of a human colonial planet. The ship will crash, killing all 4,003 people on board. The only person who can save them is Kazran Sardick, the man who can tame the sky with the machine that his father built and he, alone, can operate. However, this power has given Sardick complete control over the planet and it is clear from the start which part in the story Sardick plays, for he is, to coin a phrase, a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner. The Doctor has to convince Sardick to turn the machine on. He could, of course, do that by defeating him as he has done with scores of enemies in the past, but a moment of restraint and mercy convinces the Doctor that there is something more to Sardick. Scrooge was not beyond redemption, after all and so the Doctor must save the day by making Sardick a better person. To do this, he changes Sardick’s past intertwining his life with the life of someone who was just a frozen face and a recorded message- Abigail Pettigrew.

The Christmassy vibe is stronger than it has ever been before, but, as with Dickens, it is the redemption of the character that is at the heart of the story. Like Scrooge, Kazran’s lack of empathy is rooted in the pain of the past. To start with, it is his wholly unloving relationship with his father, but the Doctor gives him someone else to love, in the shape of Abigail. There follow a wonderful sequence of Christmas Eves and it seems that Kazran’s heart warms- only for it to be broken and for bitterness to join coldness in the adult Sardick. Amy, as the ghost of Christmas Present, tries to appeal to his better nature by showing him the faces of those he will allow to die. Sardick is closed to all salvation and is resigned to dying afraid and alone- until Christmas Yet-to-Come shows him the ultimate vision. Such a clever reinterpretation of Dickens would not have worked had Moffat not understood the meaning of the original work so thoroughly. The dialogue practically sings ’In nine hundred years of time and space I've never met anybody who wasn't important.’ The world which he builds is intoxicating- a planet where fish swim in the air, ranging from minnows gently nibbling at your ear, to sharks who will have you arm off, and where face spiders hide in the bedrooms of children.

Moffat’s script is expertly realised by Toby Haynes, lending an awesome sweep to the cityscapes and cloudscapes, but making the scenes in the young Kazran’s bedroom the irresistible blend of danger and intrigue that children love. Haynes invokes the spirit of A Christmas Carol, but is not afraid to invoke other things, from the not-very-subtle, yet joyous Jaws references, to the wonderful shot of the Doctor standing outside the teenage Kazran’s window, waiting to be invited in, which screams Peter Pan. We are so buoyed up by the spirit of the thing that nothing seems ridiculous or out of place- when a sleigh is pulled across the night sky by a shark, we are lost in wonder, not incredulity. The performances are perfect and, as expected, the fantastic Sir Michael Gambon is fantastic as Sardick, showing the coldness, amorality and the warmth that leads to the redemption of the character perfectly. In many ways, Sardick is as much the lead as the Doctor and it is good that the actors playing his childhood and teenage self (Laurence Belcher and Danny Horn respectively) are so good. As Abigail, we have Welsh mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins. She is well up to portraying the role and when her beautiful voice soars, accompanied by Murray Gold’s wonderful score, the effect is magical. Amy and Rory are sidelined, somewhat, so it is up to Matt Smith to carry the show with Gambon and when the two of them are together, the effect is electrifying. It is testament to his success in the role that I cannot imagine David Tennant in this story. The Doctor is not just the Christmas Ghosts to Kazran, he is ‘the Raggedy Doctor’, ‘The Fireplace Man’, but in a way that does not seem like a repetition of Moffat's themes.

I am not sure, but this magical hour of television could be my favourite Christmas with Doctor Who yet, another piece of fantastic festive fare from Cardiff!

NEXT: "Space"/"Time"