When I was a child, there seemed something disreputable about Doctor Who. It wasn't just that there seemed to be numerous adults determined to cure me of an addiction which could do me no good, it was that there was clearly a strand of thought at the BBC which didn't think it was good for anyone either. This was particularly the case at holiday times, when a continuity announcer would often introduce a film or perhaps some entertainment spectacular as a programme 'for all the family'. What followed invariably had little appeal to me, or indeed to anyone else in the family. The obvious programme with family appeal was not something vaguely circus-like in an arena, or a saccharine sentimental transfer from the cinema, but Doctor Who; but as the 1970s wore on, the compilation episodes which had flown the flag for the Doctor as Christmas or bank holiday entertainer became things of the past, as though they were a failed experiment. Rather, I would have agreed, be strangled by obscene vegetable matter than take a flying car to a candyfloss Mitteleuropa or wait for a father to emerge from the smoke of a coal-fired railway engine. The real magic lay in and through the TARDIS. What was a sign of rebellion then is orthodoxy now; but I couldn't help thinking that in A Christmas Carol something had been lost amid the sugarfrosting.
Perhaps my anxieties are generational: to someone whose impressions of Doctor Who were formed as a child by the emphasis on horror under Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes, A Christmas Carol seemed devoid of threat. Yet that other essential element of Doctor Who, the sense of wonder, felt over-refined too. The strategy was probably deliberate: in making a shark prominent in an episode which might prove a change of direction for the series, Steven Moffat aggressively tempted fate.
Fourteen episodes in, the signature of the Moffat-Wenger-Willis production team is inscribed more boldly but also with more dexterity. It's difficult to assess the impact of the replacement of Ed Thomas as permanent series production designer by Michael Pickwoad on one story alone, but the depiction of Sardicktown combined the metallic and the aquatic into an organic fusion not seen before in post-2005 Doctor Who, intensifying the dreamlike twilight through which much of the 2010 series was filtered into a dreich and drowning night. As has been remarked upon by at least one internet commentator, the visualization of the city was in part reminiscent of the art of Dave Gibbons in the early Doctor Who Weekly/Monthly comic strips. These have influenced design before - for example the depiction of New New York in New Earth and especially Gridlock - Sardicktown is altogether darker, the most inhospitable corner of the Rome of The Iron Legion or the City of the Damned, or just the very End of the Line. While the Christmas of A Christmas Carol is not explicitly Christian, the design of the lampposts is reminiscent of a cross. The horizontal bar is formed by loudspeakers which through 'Ding Dong Merrily on High!' prompt the Doctor to intervene in Kazran Sardick's personal history: if not strictly divine intervention, the Doctor is perhaps sent on this adventure by providence.
More than in any other Doctor Who story of the modern age, the Doctor of A Christmas Carol is a principle, a universal force which although primarily characterised by chaos - as the psychic paper acknowledges, he is not a mature and responsible adult - can be co-opted into the service of natural order. This is underlined by the Doctor's friendship with Father Christmas - they are both myths and as real as each other. The terminology of fixed points in time established under Russell T Davies is never used here, and it's understandably unsettling for many fans to see the Doctor assume the right to remodel someone's life story just over a year after The Waters of Mars suggested that he had no right to do so. The escape clause must be Kazran's failure to strike the boy in the opening scene; if someone is capable of redemption then the Doctor is allowed to treat their life as one timey-wimey moment and change events; Kazran's career is not a fixed point. Perhaps the old Kazran who hugs the young Kazran is sufficiently, at some essential level, a different person to his younger self that the Blinovitch Limitation Effect does not apply.
A Christmas Carol is the sixth Christmas episode of Doctor Who since the programme's return in 2005. The contrast between this story and The Christmas Invasion is clear. Sardicktown is heavily stylized, drawing both from a long-established vein of classic screen futurism going back at least to Metropolis (1927) and Things to Come (1936) but imposing that upon a sentimental Victorianism which owes less directly to colour musicals such as Oliver! (1968) and Scrooge (1970) but to the elements which fed through into light entertainment television in the 1970s and 1980s: frilled skirts and shirts and peaked caps, fog and snow, gas lamplight, open fires, singing sacred and secular. Russell T Davies avoided this stereotype until 2008, and even then The Next Doctor was curiously half-hearted, uncertain whether it was embracing sentiment or drawing attention to concerns about class and gender issues. Before this, the contemporary predominated: the heightened realism of the Powell Estate, Donna Noble's Chiswick, or the Thames Barrier; even the natives of Sto, on their spacefaring Titanic, are obsessed with modern humanity, even if they are misinformed about human customs. A Christmas Carol is the most remote from the everyday of the Christmas specials, and is relentlessly and unapologetically fantastic. When it does reach Earth, it's 1950s Hollywood, arguably a self-contained world detached from reality itself.
It's been five years since regular companions carried over from the previous season into the Christmas special. Steven Moffat appeared trapped by the sixty-minute time limit and the expectations of a guest star which have evolved since The Christmas Invasion. Consequently, although Amy and Rory had a plotline to themselves, and had there been as little as ten minutes more (and a hundred thousand pounds or so, perhaps) we would probably have seen them organising the crew and passengers of the spaceship, boosting morale as the starched antiseptic white uniforms (more Space 1999 with a touch of HMS Pinafore than Star Trek, though there were deliberate echoes of Kathryn Janeway, Odo and Geordi LaForge in the appearances of the captain and her helmsmen) show the captain and her staff more decorative than resourceful. The police and Roman costumes don't just flag up Amy's sexuality and the potential for both Amy and Rory to be action-adventure heroes when required, but potentially remind the viewer of times in the previous series when they have shown initiative and grown beyond their initial characterisations. As they stand, the old costumes acted more to remind the audience who these people were, as well as act (presumably) as a budget-saving measure. The prominence of Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill in the credits seemed hollow in the murky light of the episode itself.
Another contribution to the air of disappointment felt during A Christmas Carol was the brief acquaintance we had with the substitute companions - young Kazran and Abigail. We only saw brief representations of most of the adventures the Doctor, Kazran and Abigail had on successive Christmas eves because we needed to be given a sense of new memories being rapidly laid down in the mind of the old Kazran. At the same time, we were led to believe we were missing out on the fun.
The sense of a heightened reality was discarded in the sudden maturing of Kazran (though the last time we saw Laurence Belcher in the sequence of Christmas defrostings, he is looking down at the ground and glancing upwards with embarrassment, as if he was starting to notice the opposite sex). This was constructed in such a way as for the audience to notice Kazran's physical maturity all at once, as Abigail presumably did; but how long did this particular Christmas Eve last?
An unreal relationship was matched by an unreal heroine. My uncertainty about Katherine Jenkins's casting was based upon the idea that it looked too much like a diplomatic initiative. The Welsh cultural lobby might not have their militant leeks or I Was Born in Wales and I'm Cross, as mooted by Russell T Davies in the past; but giving a job to Katherine Jenkins re-establishes Upper Boat's Celtic celebrity credentials now that Russell and Julie are settled in California. The company with which I first watched A Christmas Carol wasn't helpful either: I was huddled with parents and sister in the latter's flat, and Ms Jenkins is not my mother's favourite singer to say the least. Yet Katherine Jenkins and the development and presentation of Abigail failed to overcome this. Abigail was too doll-like, a smiling fantasy in a nightdress, too prettified to imagine as a participant in a real relationship, and as such unprecedented really in latterday Doctor Who. Perhaps the Doctor's marriage to Marilyn Monroe is a kind of acknowledgement of this - while a complex and serious individual, placing her in the environment of Frank Sinatra's party draws attention to her celebrity persona and interweaves Jenkins's notoriety outside the narrative with the function her character exercises within.
Abigail's voice proves to be the key to the 'unlocking' of the clouds which allows the ship to land and passengers and crew to be saved; it also allows for a final, intense, delicate, wondering performance from Michael Gambon. Gambon has not been mentioned sufficiently in this review; he works imaginatively with material which could easily have inspired another actor (amidst a less dedicated crew than ours) to phone the performance in. Gambon lets the audience see that Kazran has become a whole person; and when Kazran changes, his world changes too, though the night does not lift.
As the Doctor remarks, Kazran and his world are only half-way out of the dark. Abigail is about to die; Kazran's emotional state is difficult to predict, and Kazran's control over the weather is presumably over, which will lead to drastic changes in society which will take a very long time to resolve. (Not that a society which calls its midwinter festival 'the Crystal Feast', with its echoes of Kristallnacht, is probably intended to be healthy in the first place.) Indeed, with the Doctor having apparently overwritten Kazran's life twice, it's unclear how stable the world the Doctor leaves is, with Kazran's entire relationship with Abigail being a paradox. The young Kazran presumably has foreknowledge of his Christmas eves with Abigail and thus is prepared for the personal tragedies which are to follow; or else the Doctor wipes his memory; or the whole scenario is eaten by Reapers, conveniently taking the Doctor's marriage to Marilyn Monroe with them. Otherwise, the Doctor leaves Abigail to die because to go further would be to cross some line, beyond which would be the darkest night of all.
The Doctor's "half-way out of the dark" is a repeat of something Kazran said much earlier in the episode, as if encouraging us to interpret the Doctor as the authorial voice for this story. He is the orchestrator of events, much as Jacob Marley is (though less obviously) in A Christmas Carol. "Jacob Marley was Dr. Who slightly tipsy, but what other tricks did he get up to that Yuletide?" asked C.E. Webber in 1963 in 'Dr. Who: General Notes on Background and Approach'. Webber's story has been waiting to be told for over forty-seven years. Sydney Newman criticized it and other whimsies of Webber as condescending to the audience, but while the audience of 2010 was probably more tolerant of and certainly more enthusiastic about fantasy than was Newman, there's truth in his comment that Webber's ideas could be "silly and condescending". The intelligence within this story was almost smothered by its self-consciousness as a Christmas episode straining to be worthy of its lightweight trappings, from Pooky Quesnel's archly deadpan "Christmas is cancelled" to the ersatz Victorians in the falling snow.
This article has listed many of the reasons why I was disappointed without weaving as strong a linking chain of reasoning as I'd like; perhaps it will be no surprise if I confess that I don't like Christmas pudding, and am only a recent convert to mince pies. Brandy sauce is not an option either.
One more thought. Amy, in her policewoman outfit, has nothing appropriate to wear. Rory's military wear and his two thousand years of devotion to her make him a prince of sorts. C.E. Webber's notes towards Christmas episodes speculated that Cinderella's fairy godmother might have been the Doctor's wife, chasing him through time. Amy has been subjected to some godmothering from River Song, particularly with the magic, memory-prompting gift of the diary. The Doctor is a genie of the lamp, wandering in from another pantomime; or possibly an irresponsible sorceror who stole the lamp to begin with and now entertains himself by showing Amy and Rory honeymoon after honeymoon from within his magic realm, while outside it the years run away and the world changes. A Christmas Carol might have been tame, but we were never far away from the Perilous Realm.