Thursday, February 24, 2011

"A Christmas Carol"

You know how in the five previous Christmas specials I've tended to make the point, at least as far as I recall, that they seem to have been written in the probably justified hope that the majority of the audience would be overfed, drunk, sleepy people and tuckered-out kiddies on Christmas night who wouldn't pay enough attention to notice how absolutely god awful they were? And that it proved in my mind that Doctor Who just isn't the kind of show which should have Christmas Specials? Well this is kind of the opposite. The first time I watched this I was rather merry after consuming a good deal of Christmas cheer of the 'made from hops and served in a short green bottle' variety very late on a Boxing Day night/very early morning of December 27th following a long Boxing Day of Christmas Round 2 with friends which followed Round 1 of Christmas on Christmas Day itself which was spent with family. In that condition, I couldn't help feel a bit dissatisfied. I was slightly bored, I was bothered and I was confused. What was going on here? Then a few days later I watched it in the middle of the day under normal conditions and I really liked it, and since then I've rewatched it a number of times and I still really like it. Why this disparity? Well, it was simply too complex, too detailed and too subtle for my Christmas-addled brain to appreciate. What's the point I'm trying to make here? Basically what I'm saying is that this episode stands up in a post-Christmas mindset, and is actually better, whereas the previous Christmas Specials upon fully awake sobre rewatch leave you wanting to shoot the television. What "A Christmas Carol" shows is that Doctor Who actually can do a Christmas episode well, but it also continues to prove that the actual demands of Christmas television aren't right for Doctor Who because, basically, this episode is too good for those low standards of quality. It's by no means a perfect episode, because what is besides some kind of edited-together version of "The Pyramids of Mars", but it still stands up.
I suppose the big whammy for this episode is that it stars none other than Michael Gambon as antagonist-to-assistant Kazran Sardick. I think this is a pretty big deal, and for a show which deals with changing actors it seems fitting to have post-regeneration Dumbledore filling a role. His performance as Kazran is superb - both cold-hearted and extremely defensive yet also curious and clearly pained. At the same time he gets to ham it up as his father, Elliot Sardick, who fulfils the nasty old miser archetype exactly. Indeed Gambon gets some of the best lines in the episode, such as "You know what I call it? Expecting something for nothing!" in regards to Christmas and "Tell him from me, people can't," in regards to time being rewritten. We can believe his emotional journey, and not so much through his new memories but his witnessing of those new memories, and his redemption is a satisfying one. He realises that in not letting Abigail go he is hurting himself.
Now the role of Kazran is also played by two other actors as both child and young man Kazran by Laurence Belcher and Danny Horn respectively and they both do an extremely good job as the nervous child who befriends the Doctor and the awkward yet troubled young man who he becomes the more time he spends with Abigail. Abigail herself is serviceable enough, I suppose, although I think she is mostly there to sing well and look pretty; then again it was Katherine Jenkins' first ever acting role as far as the hype claimed and if that's the case I think she does a pretty decent job. It's just that we're more concerned about Kazran's relationship with Abigail than with Abigail herself.
I feel like the monsters are again a tad needless but I suppose in the long run they're not really monsters, and as weird as I find the concept of fish who swim in air and are soothed by stirring opera it's at least a bit different. I suppose the gigantic relief for this episode is that it's on a different planet, it's in the future, and while they're still humans and the civilisation obviously has a sort of middle-Victorian aesthetic evocative of the era of the Dickens novel this homages it's another fairly refreshing aspect. The extremely futuristic spaceship is nice as a throwaway set for the opening and while there's a lot of cheesy dialogue at the beginning like "Christmas is cancelled," and Amy saying the Doctor's arrival means "It's Christmas" it's good that Moffat subverts this kind of hyper-futuristic glossy science fiction with all the down and dirty stuff we get on the planet below. That being said the effects for the ship and the fish, especially when they're swimming in formation in the clouds, are all very nice, and the wide shots of the city focusing on Sardick's mansion are very atmospheric. It's worth noting that so much of this episode is shot in semi-darkness, with much of it coloured by greys and deep blues, and it sets a suitably sombre tone for the episode. The music similarly lacks the silliness of previous Christmas specials and all in all the atmosphere is a good deal more mature, as I suppose befits the storyline. It is, after all, full of pain and bitterness and the Doctor interfering in people's lives.
The time travel stuff is again very clever even though it's going on right after the same thing happening in "The Big Bang" but because it's set throughout the life of one man it provides a good twist. There's some weird stuff which took me a few viewings to fathom, such as Abigail's family being old in the first scene and young in the Christmas dinner scene later on, and that the little boy in that dinner scene is meant to be the middle-aged man at the start, perhaps because Abigail's sister doesn't look particularly old in the opening and she's meant to be older than Kazran himself. It's weird that we had this rather deterministic view of time travel in the previous story where the Doctor has to fulfil what's already been observed to happen whereas in this one he goes back and changes things, granting Kazran new memories and an alternative past. The fact that the 'Christmas future' bit is actually young Kazran seeing his aged self is clever and effective, and the concept of Isomorphic controls is a nice nod to the Classic series. The fact that this changed Kazran still exists in the same scenario in spite of the Doctor's meddling in his past seems a bit odd, however. It's a very... illogical view of time travel with causality essentially thrown out the window, but it's interesting and the mood and pacing are so good I don't give a damn. I'm equally glad that we don't get some melodramatic death scene for Abigail at the end because it's not really the point as the Doctor elaborates before leaving - it's about accepting things and making choice, and their last day together, and the fact that they're together, not apart.
I mean there's some weird stuff as well, like why the Doctor bothers to show up every Christmas Eve. What's the point? And while it's instantaneous for him and Abigail wouldn't it screw Kazran up a bit to have to wait every year to see his beloved? I suppose the Doctor didn't know she was dying, but he never attempts to let her out or help her or any of the other 'surplus population' escape either. I suppose he needed to keep things manageable so that Kazran wouldn't change too much to make the situation untenable, which is ultimately what happens when the isomorphic controls stop working. There are some nice references in there though, like the fez and the Fourth Doctor scarves, but it seems weird that the Doctor would take them to all these strange places like Sydney and the Pyramids and a Frank Sinatra party. I suppose it just seems a little incongruous and it can feel like a bit of a drag in the middle. As I say, I think the episode is so complicated it demands multiple rewatches to try and fit all the pieces together; that's not necessarily a bad thing, it just means it's a bit confusing. The song is also quite good in my opinion, and while the whole 'two halves of the sonic screwdriver' thing all seems very convenient I suppose it's fair enough.
Amy and Rory barely appear in this one, although Arthur Darvill gets his name in the titles at last, so there's not too much to say about them really. I feel like we get a bit distracted from Gambon's Kazran in the middle as well, but overall it's a strong storyline and it's so bursting at the seams with plot that it feels like a proper story, not some piece of pap thrown out for Christmas. You can tell Moffat is actually trying with this one, rather than just taking an 'anything goes' attitude towards the demands of a Christmas Special. There's some silliness like the Doctor coming down the chimney or the bit where the shark pulls the carriage but there's also a lot of good humour, like "What colour is it?" "Big... big colour." It's way too intelligent and involved for a Christmas Special but that's a really good thing; it's a good continuance for the era and the performances from Michael Gambon and Matt Smith in particular are stellar. In fact I'd say it's up there with the best episodes of Series 5, and that's certainly saying something as far as a Christmas Special is concerned. It certainly proves beyond doubt the superiority of this era in the current history of the New Series.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.