Amazing inventions these things. They keep the feet warm in winter. They help to keep in check the unwelcome smell of two-year-old Gorgonzola cheese. They're also the one constant of Christmas. No matter what – even if the entire collection of sock shops in the world simultaneously explode on December 1st, somehow, each and every person will still receive a pair of socks.
This is possibly why the prospect of a gaudily-wrapped stocking-shaped Christmas keepsake never really gets the excitement flowing on Christmas Day. After all, it's too predictable and dull, yes? But then don't forget the sentiment behind it. Your granny or auntie or whoever lovingly chose the socks in a shop, lovingly wrapped them up, complete with bow tie and gave them to you in a sweet gesture. So coming to A Christmas Carol, the first Seasonal Smith tale, I'm doing my level best to ward off any Scrooge-like reservations that I have about the tale and try and look at it from another angle.
Initially, my expectations of how this review would pan out were shaky to say the least. Rewinding back to the Christmas trailers of 2010 and the big mantra of Time Can Be Rewritten, I wasn't too impressed. “Time Can Be Rewritten” these days isn't just an idea, it's a promise. When I did get round to seeing it (about a month later after transmission), my worst fears were confirmed – not much excitement, too much timey-wimey running around, a flying shark and worse, face-pulling warbler Katherine Jenkins doing her usual schtick of making a noise like a parrot being sucked up the funnel of a hoover while pulling the face of that slo-mo wedding party in the Haribo advert from the early 2010s – seriously, Google it if you don't believe me.
With that in mind, the prospect of reviewing this one seemed like a doddle. Just write “Rubbish” in big, bold letters and blather on about Jenkins' singing voice for a couple of sentences. But that would be too easy. Plus, given how I'd given Timelash some sort of reprieve, well, fair do's, how about trying the same with A Christmas Carol? And do you know what? It wasn't quite as hideous as I first thought – it all depends on what sort of angle you look at it.
OK, so the above points still stand – kids in particular may not have been too impressed with the fact that there's no traditional monster per se – we have the shark, which is admittedly quite a scary prospect for anyone who's had nightmares about the Jaws movies. The effects for this are certainly impressive, and the initial shots of the great big shark suddenly bursting in and eating the Doctor's Sonic Screwdriver are about as scary as you get in this tale. But in the end, they're a bit too cutesy and end up as no more than a novelty taxi service by the story's conclusion. They're also easily tamed, with just a quick burst of song – well, strictly speaking, as the Doctor puts it: “The notes resonate in the ice, causing a delta wave pattern in the fog”.
Evidently, Peter Benchley never thought of Jaws: The Musical, since it would have lasted for precisely five minutes, as Brody starts crooning the cream of American soft rock to the toothy one.
The sharks aside, there's no real sense of big, meaty drama in A Christmas Carol. There's a subplot for Amy and Rory, who are up to some hot lovin' aboard a space liner for their honeymoon (while doing some weird kinky stuff in the police woman and centurion uniforms).
Mind you, this is Doctor Who we're talking about – no honeymoon ever follows the path of true love. Amy and Rory regrettably miss out on the ultimate luxury holiday – instead of sipping cocktails in a space-age jacuzzi, they're too busy helping to save the space liner from crashing.
But then, I ask myself, why couldn't the Doctor just land on board the crashing ship before the ship enters disaster mode – or why doesn't he either ferry everyone away in the TARDIS or find some way of over-riding the controls? Given that he allows himself Carte-Blanche to meddle in Kazran's history, well surely a quick mercy mission to give the Space Liner passengers and crew a bit of festive hope should be on the Doctor's agenda too? This whole subplot never really rings true – not just because there's a thousand and one easier ways to solve the problem, but also because it's so insubstantial. Most of the action is devoted to the Doctor and Kazran, with only a few cutaway shots of the Space Liner disaster. It's impossible to give a damn about the plight of the passengers when we never see them – although given that we hear them singing, they're probably played by Murray's Pompous Choir. So maybe the fact that we don't see them is a blessing in disguise.
Amy and Rory fans may feel short-changed. Arthur Darvill fans in particular may be over the moon that he gets his name in the still-rubbish opening titles, but like Karen Gillan, Darvill is largely consigned to fleeting cameos and little more.
And so to the Timey-Wimey aspect of the story which has raised some eyebrows in fan circles. Not only is the Doctor still messing around with time, there's also the potential danger of Geek Fury Overload with the notion of the Blinovitch Limitation Effect being blasted into small crumbs. The Doctor's time meddling first – fair do's, he's not setting out to change history for the worse or for his own selfish ego (as he did in The Waters Of Mars). He's simply doing it not only to save the soul of miserable wretch Kazran, but also to save the lives of the Space Liner passengers and crew.
But then think about the big song and dance that the Doctor's made in the past about rewriting history. His angry confrontation with Barbara in The Aztecs. His righteous anger at The Meddling Monk in The Time Meddler. Everything being shot to hell in Father's Day, not to mention an even more explosive outburst from the Doctor to Rose. This time around, curiously, the Doctor's not particularly bothered about rewriting time – it's possible that while he still regards himself as the last of the Time Lords, he can still do what he likes, but only if it's for the greater good. But all these time rewriting shenanigans do make me wonder where all this will end up, and also, along with the previous Pandorica Bang story, it feels like there's been too much faffing around with time, as if time is no more than a knackered old computer that can be rebooted when it takes the Doctor's fancy.
Another point to make is that the Doctor's time meddling doesn't quite lead to Kazran wrapping everything up in a neat Christmassy package – because his younger self finds himself smitten with Abigail, but there's just one problem: After enjoying a number of Christmases together, Abigail tells Kazran that she only has one day to live, thanks to an incurable disease. So Kazran stops the Christmas Eve fun with the Doctor, but more to the point, because he's bitter at Abigail's plight, he initially still chooses not to save the lives on board the Liner (“I would never have known her if the Doctor hadn't changed the course of my whole life to suit himself”). Even when Kazran inevitably has a change of heart and tries to use the machine to avert the crash, because the controls are isomorphic (neat hello to Pyramids Of Mars here), they don't recognise their master (“I've changed you too much,” frowns the Doctor. “The machine doesn't recognise you!”). In the end, only by allowing Abigail one last song is the crisis averted. The Doctor's time meddling by no means leads to an easy click of the fingers.
As for the Blinovitch Limitation thing, well, basically if you're a Doctor Who fan, you'll probably know your Mawdryn Undead inside out, and more than your PIN number (mind you, who CAN remember PIN numbers these days?) any road. At the end of that adventure two Brigadiers meet each other at the same time, causing what Tegan calls “Zap!” - two sets of the same person apparently can't meet at the same time, which is what happens with devastating effect in Father's Day (when Rose meets her very younger self). Oddly, this time around, present day Kazran meets his younger self and eventually pulls him in for a big, sobbing “I'm sorry” hug. And yet there's not so much as a hiccup or a paltry puff of smoke. Never mind rewriting time, some hardcore Doctor Who fans may have thought that Steven Moffat's doing the same thing with the mythology. You can almost picture him at the laptop rubbing his hands in glee at the thought of sending the odd aficionado or two into seething cauldrons of rage.
Me myself, I couldn't really give two hoots – 'tis only a TV programme when all is said and done. Besides, the offending scene is rather moving. Actually, this time around, there's curiously a lot more heart in A Christmas Carol, and that's a big plus point in my book. Admittedly things do get a bit cheesy with the singing and stuff, but it's the change in Kazran that tugs at the heartstrings. Having started off as a vicious Scrooge-like misanthrope, he gradually realises that his overbearing father was exactly the same. We see flashbacks to Sardick Snr hitting his son, as well as his first Christmas Eve without Abigail and the Doctor. “Is this who you want to become, Kazran?” asks the Doctor, and in a rather heart-warming moment, Kazran breaks down and apologises to his younger self. It could have been a moment of pure schlock, but not only is the writing on the ball, so is Michael Gambon's performance, which adds another layer to the superficial boo-hiss villainy of the Kazran that we first encounter.
In fact, it's Gambon who adds much to the story's success. Carrying on the tradition of pulling the big-name actors such as Simon Callow or Derek Jacobi, Doctor Who now managed to add Gambon to its bulging contacts book. Gambon, a familiar face both on TV (The Singing Detective) and on the big screen (the second Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series), adds a lot of gravitas to the role of Kazran. He's clearly enjoying his initial pantomime villain quota of lines “Hello! Wakey Wakey, it's Christmas! Do you know what? I think she's a bit cool about the whole thing!”), but more than that, he helps to steer all that angry craziness into subtle depths, as Kazran slowly realises that maybe – just maybe – a little bit of goodwill is the greatest thing that you can give away at Christmas. From a boo-hiss baddie through to a character with some semblance of heart and redemption – not many actors could have done with this perfect conviction, but Gambon succeeds big time, proving to be an inspired bit of casting.
One of the things I like about A Christmas Carol is the way in which it practically smells of life in 2010s Britain. Like Colony In Space, A Christmas Carol may not be the most exciting story in the Whoniverse, but it does have plenty of interesting things to say about economic times. Sardick in particular is an amalgamation of every unfeeling politician, bank boss and evil businessman under the sun. Hard times were (and still are) hitting a worrying chunk of hard-working British people who are struggling to make ends meet, owing to a Government that's perfectly willing to axe vital jobs in practically every sector imaginable and stick with the biggest folly in history (Six letters: begins with B, ends in T), but mysteriously can't stop the rancid funding drought culture that's eating through the country like a deadly disease.
Not only that, but Sardick's method of debt management is as cruel as you can get. Basically, people are kept as security guarantees for loans in cryogenic freeze (“You took a loan of 4500 Gideons and Little Miss Christmas is my security”). Which kind of acts as a sly metaphor of the terrifying debt culture that's overtaken the country – whether it's mortgages, student loans or even loans for people who vitally need that extra cash, people are being frozen out by whopping great interest rates and also the fact that job security/money prospects aren't what they once were. The whole country seems to be governed by a population of heartless Sardicks – sadly, the prospect of the Johnsons, Rees Moggs and countless right-wing meanies showing some twinge of compassion and humanity seems as likely as Pingu presenting the Queen's Speech.
But hey – this is Doctor Who, so that means that anything can happen. The Doctor's faith in even the most miserly of humans manages to strike a chord. It's that sunny optimism that makes A Christmas Carol just that little bit more special than what I first thought. OK, so nothing much happens. There are no terrifying scares to be had. Katherine Jenkins does little but glide around doing her best to look vaguely sincere while warbling like a madwoman.
But for all that, there's a genuine warmth and heart at the core of A Christmas Carol. Whereas previous Christmas tales had grown more depressing and navel-gazing by the year, it's refreshing to have a festive story that actually proves that even when times are hard, there's just that little ray of sun tucked away in the very corner.
Embodying this good cheer is of course, Matt Smith, who continues to go from strength to strength with his wonderful portrayal of the Doctor. The Eleventh Doctor is one of those incarnations that's impossible to dislike, owing to his goofy bumbling and awkward attempts at playing the big, swashbuckling hero. He continues to be as clueless as ever when it comes to wooing the opposite sex (“When girls are crying, are you supposed to talk to them?” asks Young Kazran to which the Doctor says: “I have absolutely no idea”). He's also more reliant on his brain rather than big, swashbuckling bravado – as evidenced in the way that he susses out the situation in Sardick's room with the chairs angled away from the portrait of his father (“You're scared of him and you're scared of being like him”).
It's a bit like the other Moffat flavour of the month, Sherlock, in that the Doctor's quickly deducing all the clues at his disposal to work out what's going on. But in between all these brain teasing workouts, the Doctor still finds time to have fun, which he does by taking Young Kazran and Abigail to a myriad of Christmas Eves in different times and places, whether he's visiting the Pyramids or getting engaged to Marilyn Monroe. It's a refreshing change of pace to have a Doctor who hasn't got the weight of the world on his shoulders (owing to loss of companions or imminent regeneration). All good fun, and Matt Smith's evidently having a whale of a time playing Santa Who.
With all that in mind, I am pleasantly surprised by A Christmas Carol. Even though it doesn't have as much excitement, tension or face spiders as I'd have liked, the joie-de-vivre and good heart of this story cannot be ignored. The visuals are lavish with some strong direction from Toby Haynes, who really goes to town in creating a festive ambience. Moffat's script thankfully cuts down on the smugness of his previous offering with sleigh-fuls of witty dialogue.
All in all, A Christmas Carol is just like that pair of socks on first inspection, but if you dig deep enough, there may just be a couple of pieces of gold tucked away in the corner.
* Early Christmas present ideas ahoy with my five Doctor Who ebook guides to the Third to Eighth Doctors, which are available at Amazon for £2 each.
JON PERTWEE ERA
TOM BAKER ERA VOL 1
TOM BAKER ERA VOL 2 UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B077K8MN2P
PETER DAVISON ERA
COLIN BAKER/ SYLVESTER MCCOY/PAUL MCGANN ERAS