Dec 26 2010 12:59pm

The Doctor Rides the Shark on Christmas: Doctor Who, “A Christmas Carol”

Doctor Who episode A Christmas Carol

Ryan Britt: The dirty little secret about why so many contemporary sci-fi fans are very, very well read on the classics is simply because we all watched a lot of sci-fi as young children. I for one will freely admit that my knowing Ahab’s best lines from Moby Dick came from my first 7-year-old viewing of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I saw Forbidden Planet when I was 8, and only became aware of its connection to The Tempest when I was a teenager. Now, I truly hope similar children of today are having Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” good and corrupted for them by what was easily the best Doctor Who Christmas special yet.

(Warning: Spoilers below.)

We all knew what we were getting into with this Doctor Who special. I mean, it’s actually shamelessly called “A Christmas Carol.” And yet, right from the earliest moments of the episode, writer Steven Moffat starts surprising me. Because while this episode is safely a Dickens homage, the episode itself is not safe. Moffat takes a lot of risks with a Christmas Day audience, which is why in many ways he (and not the three actors he’s written for) is really the Doctor. Right away he establishes that Amy and Rory are on their honeymoon because they are wearing costumes from previous episodes.  When I saw the preview for this episode I thought—“Oh, they’re going to time-travel to different episodes and the time-line is going to get all screwed up, and that’s why Amy and Rory are in costumes from other episodes.” Nope! They just have a fun sex-life and are obviously doing some role playing. Wonderful!

Teresa Jusino: I received the best Christmas present last night: The knowledge that Amy and Rory on Doctor Who have kinky, role-playing sex. Thank you, Santa. You DID know what I wanted this year!

And then there was the gift of the wonderfully sweet episode itself; an episode that is everything good about Doctor Who; a Christmas confection that was thankfully given to the United States on the same day as it was given in the United Kingdom, and for this I thank BBC America.

The world has known many re-tellings of the Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol, but writer Steven Moffat managed to do something a bit different. He doesn’t do a faithful adaptation, nor does he do a modern version of the same story, a la Bill Murray’s Scrooged. What he does instead is take the basic skeleton of A Christmas Carol and build a new story around it, touching on certain key elements, but creating something fresh.

Amy and Rory are meeting up with The Doctor on a far-off planet after their honeymoon. As their spaceship approaches, they cannot land safely because the planet has a thick cloud layer that is full of fish that can swim in fog. One man, Kazran Sardick, has a machine that only he can operate that can control the clouds and could give the ship safe passage, but he won’t, simply because there’s nothing in it for him. Sardick is the most powerful man in the world, and as such, also has many families who are in debt to him. The product of a difficult father, Sardick maintains his father’s tradition of collateral—he claims a family member from all families in debt and keeps him/her suspended in cold storage until the family’s debt is repaid. He’s like a cross between Ebeneezer Scrooge and Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life. As Sardick is the only one who can operate the machine that can save the ship, The Doctor has to convince him to do it. But how do you convince someone who just doesn’t care? You give them something to care about.

Ryan Britt: What I thought was risky was the depiction of just how bad a dude Kazran was. Not only is he okay with all those people dying on the crashing spaceship, but he straight up almost hits an Oliver Twist-esque little urchin. Whoa! And then we see him get hit by his father in a later scene. Double whoa! This guy is way meaner, and way more screwed up than the original Scrooge. And the great thing about Kazran being such a jerk was that it got me thinking immediately; there is NO way that simply showing this guy his past, present and future is going to fix his personality.

Doctor Who episode A Christmas Carol

Teresa Jusino: At first, I didn’t understand what had made Sardick so mean in the first place. His anger as he’s made to care for Abigail, a woman he has in cold storage, only to have her taken away from him was understandable. What I didn’t get was what would cause him to allow 4,000 people on a ship to die so he wouldn’t be inconvenienced. However, by the end of the episode it was clear that his not having anyone to love before Abigail was precisely why he didn’t care about people. Whereas for Ebeneezer Scrooge, lost love caused him to become a misanthrope, for Sardick having the opportunity to lose a love in the first place was what opened his heart to others. Sardick, like Amy Pond, took an emotional journey that was opposite of those of his fictional predecessor, Scrooge, which made his journey more poignant. Sardick’s father showed him no love himself, and kept him from anything that he could love, like the sky fish he was so fascinated by. It took The Doctor rather brutally showing him what love is to get him to act with love in his heart. Love wasn’t something of which he needed reminding, it was something he had to learn.

Ryan Britt: And that’s when the plot really gets going. So, in order to save the spaceship and Amy and Rory’s lives (thus allowing them to continue to have kinky, kinky sex) Kazran needs to move the clouds aside with a force field control thingamabob. But the only way he’s going to stop being a bad guy is if the Doctor becomes the Ghost of Christmas Past. The premise of the episode becomes apparent immediately as The Doctor tells Kazran that he is going to be “creating new memories.”

Here, Moffat has outdone himself in terms of time-paradox writing acrobatics. Did you think The Doctor popped around a lot and screwed with people’s lives before? Not more than he did with Kazran, I bet. Gone are the days of the Doctor only crossing somebody’s personal timeline for cheap tricks. Now, The Doctor is straight-up insinuating himself into this man’s biography in order to change his entire worldview, and make Kazran a better person.

This is where I really like Stephen Moffat’s paradox timeline writing. After all the changes The Doctor makes to Kazran’s timeline, the man still ends up a jerk because his one true love has been taken away from him. The Doctor has changed nothing, and if anything, made it worse.

But is our favorite Timelord done messing with Kazran’s life? No way. As a last-ditch effort to change him, the Doctor shows young-child Kazran old ranting crazy Kazran, and asks, “Is this who you want to become?” At this, I nearly cried. In Dickens, the Ghost of Christmas Future famously shows Scrooge a world in which no one cares about his death. But in Doctor Who the Scrooge character’s literal child-self is shown what a terrible person he will be as an adult, thus creating an instant new memory in the child, causing his entire life to be rewritten. After this scene, I immediately imagined the Doctor taking me to see my adult self and asking me if I wanted to become this person.

Teresa Jusino: Steven Moffatt has given us an intricate, funny script that manages to be both dark and light. Appropriate, considering that the main point made about Christmas throughout “A Christmas Carol” is that Christmas falls at the time of year when we are halfway out of the dark. His twist regarding the Ghost of Christmas Future where, rather than show the old Sardick his own future he shows Sardick as a boy to his present self as a cautionary tale, was set up beautifully, and was unexpected. The episode was blessed with two excellent guest stars in Michael Gambon as Sardick and opera star Katherine Jenkins as Abigail. It also gave us Matt Smith the best he’s been since “The Eleventh Hour”!

Doctor Who’s A Christmas Carol was a beautifully done love letter to the Christmas season that showed us  that people, as well as time, can be rewritten.

Ryan Britt: The Doctor rides a flying shark. He doesn’t jump over the shark or get on top of a shark, but instead tames it and uses it to pull a sleigh. Flying fish and instant new childhood memories for Christmas? Best Christmas ever.

Doctor Who Season 6 begins in Spring 2011!

Cowboy Doctor in Doctor Who

Cowgirl River Song in Doctor Who

Teresa Jusino was born on the same day that Skylab fell. Coincidence? She doesn’t think so. Her “feminist brown person” take on pop culture has been featured on websites like,, Newsarama, and Her fiction has appeared in the sci-fi literary magazine, Crossed Genres, and her essay “Why Joss is More Important Than His ‘Verse” is included in the upcoming book WHEDONISTAS: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon By the Women Who Love Them, coming in March 2011! Get Twitterpated with Teresa, or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.

Ryan Britt’s writing has been featured here, as well as published with, Clarkesworld Magazine, and elsewhere. He really, really liked the flying fish in the Doctor Who Christmas Special last night.

This article is part of The Twelve Doctors of Christmas: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Ashe Armstrong
1. AsheSaoirse
I was in a foul mood yesterday but this was my shining relief and sure enough, as soon as I saw, "Come along, Pond," up on the screen, I squeed and felt good. This special was absolutely brilliant and was a true Christmas special. And as much as I love Amy (and I had the same thought you guys did when I saw her and Rory), I was glad the episode was so Doctor heavy. Matt is fantastic.
2. politeruin
It was ok but absolutely absurd in places even to the standards 0f doctor who, to a degree that i simply could not buy into. Actual fish swimming in the sky? Really?! It was better than the previous yearly eps i think but saying it was the best of the christmas specials is like eating a shit sandwich but with a garnish of lettuce - it's still a shit sandwich!
Ashe Armstrong
3. AsheSaoirse
Out of everything ever seen in Doctor Who, fish that swim in air on an alien planet is where you draw the line? Alright then.
4. foundling
Absolutely loved this episode, but the only thing that frustrated me was the 'halfway out of the dark' point. As I live in Australia I was sitting in hot sunlight while watching it. Half the world may be coming out of the dark, but the other half is already out!

"Finally, a lie too big."
5. politeruin
#3 It was a pretty important plot point for this particular episode and fiction like who is all about immersing yourself in the world it sets out which is fine when it is internally logical to that universe adapted for swimming in water are floating in the air? Huh?What? It was just ludicrous and impossible to take seriously, particularly the carriage pulling. The little fishies floating around i might have possibly accepted.
Teresa Jusino
6. TeresaJusino
Findmeastorm @4 -
Heh. That must be how people in the US feel if they live in California or Texas and have to listen to White Christmas all the time. :) I think the point still stands, however. It just so happens that the solstice where darkness and light happen are different where you are - but there's still that midpoint. Just doesn't happen near Christmas, that's all! :)

politeruin @5 -
"fish adapted for swimming in water are floating in the air? Huh?"

Well, the fish weren't just floating in the air, they were floating in clouds made of ice, apparently dense enough to swim in. Also, you're talking about them as if they're fish the way you know fish. Who says fish on another planet need water to live or that they were "adapted for swimming in water." You see that they have fins, but you don't know what or how they're breathing. What if they're breathing air and can't survive in water at all? The fins only mean they're adapted to swimming.

"fiction like who is all about immersing yourself in the world it sets out which is fine when it is internally logical to that universe"

It was internally logical to this world! This planet had a history of dealing with these fish, which was set up from the beginning of the episode. We were told at the beginning "This planet has fish that can fly in fog." That's our cue to go "OK, this is how this world works." End of story. You might want a big explanation as to the biology of these fish, but personally, I think that would've made the episode hella boring.
7. foundling
6 Teresa: Haha, true. I really appreciated the whole storyline of darkness and escaping it, I'm just a little tired of always seeing Christmas portrayed as snowy and cold.

And I loved the fish.
James Goetsch
8. Jedikalos
Yes indeed. Thanks for all the fish! Not to mention Amy, role-playing kinky sex. A Christmas to remember.
Ruth X
9. RuthX
So many great moments...the Doctor coming down the chimney because he had to give it a go, Rory & Amy roleplaying (wonderful!), fish that swim in the air and doesn't all have to make sense, it's the beauty of the Whoniverse and the magic of Christmas.

I was glad that the main plotline was only loosely A Christmas Carol, because it's been done so many times. This was better. It made me think a bit of Moffat's adaptations of Sherlock Holmes.
Alex Brown
10. AlexBrown
I enjoyed this ep a much good stuff. Matt Smith still isn't my Doctor, but he is a great Doctor. I love what he does and it's almost like watching verbal acrobatics, and it's just stunning when he twists the other characters into it without them realizing it. Moffat did the same thing on Coupling and there's a reason that's one of my fave sitcoms.

However, I do have to balk at everyone calling Amy and Rory's roleplaying "kinky". That was kinky back in never. Roleplaying as themselves is so vanilla. An active and fun-filled sex life? Yes. Kink? Only in the same sense that pale pink is a shade of red. And the fact that so many people think that is some hot and sexy kink makes me sad for the American sex life. You want kink? Read Dan Savage. THAT is kink.
F Shelley
11. FSS
My family and I watched this on Christmas night (a heartfelt thank you to BBC for airing on Christmas!), and we really liked it.

For me, though, I really enjoyed the Doctor Who at the Proms showing earlier in the day. What a fun and different way to enjoy the music behind Doctor Who!

I do kind of wish people would start to let go of David Tenant as the Doctor. He was great, but I'm really starting to like Mat Smith a lot better.
Steven Halter
12. stevenhalter
We really enjoyed this special. The twists to the normal Christmas Carol were well done. The fish flying in fog were nicely whimsidaisical.
Ursula L
13. Ursula
I'd love to see a conversation between Moffat and Bujold about "A Christmas Carol" and Cryoburn.  

We have two major science fiction works released within months of each other, which both tackle issues of neglected children, cryo-freezing, and the role of people from the past being brought into the future, and where they fit into that future.  


The only thing that bugged me with this episode is that it isn't clear why the Doctor couldn't, once he learned she was sick, find a way to cure Abigail.  He's got a time machine, and he knows that the cat-doctors on New Earth could cure anything, in the time before he shut them down.  

The story wouldn't have worked if he cured her, but some explanation why he couldn't - such as that he discovered her illness when it was too far progressed, one day left and the treatment needs weeks - would have been helpful. It seemed out of character for the Doctor to be so calm about someone he cares for dying so young of an illness.
Jonathan Chen
14. jonc
Aside from the chortle of amusement elicited when Amy and Rory appeared in their respective costumes; my other favourite moment was the Doctor's psychic paper shorted out due to an overlarge fib!

And to the critics of the flying fish, wasn't there some (very brief) technical sound-bite about them using some electrical discharge to manage their flight capabilities? That sounds a heckuva lot more plausible some of the other stuff that's been and gone in the series!
Teresa Jusino
15. TeresaJusino
Milo1313 @10 - Hey, now. Let's not get judgey about kink. :) You might be further along on the spectrum, but role-playing is safely on the kink spectrum. The only "vanilla" sex is missionary. After that, it's just a matter of degree and temperment. Kink doesn't only count when it involves electrical charges or excrement.

Hey, aren't we supposed to be talking about sci-fi here? :) I suppose this fits into the "...and related subjects" category.
Ursula L
16. Ursula
Am I the only one wondering if/how the final song ("When you're alone, silence is all you know...") will be tied in to the ongoing mystery of the Silence that is related to the TARDIS exploding?
Ursula L
17. Ursula
I've been thinking a bit more about why the Doctor didn't heal Abigail at the end of the episode, and I think I have it pinned down.

For the Doctor, the natural death of people is something he has to deal with all the time. Everyone he meets was probably dead last week, and not born yet next week, from his perspective. It's impossible for him to genuinely save anyone, only to temporarily postpone their death or change the circumstances of their death. So he has to, emotionally, be in a state where he is accepting about the inevitability of death, since to him, everyone is dead already in a certain way.

Eleven seems to deal with this by seeing his adventures as a series of stories, and his role as being the hero in the story who brings it to a successful conclusion.

And for Abigail and Kazran, there was no happily ever after possible. By the end of the story, their lives were too out-of-synch. If the Doctor healed Abigail, what would there be for them? Kazaran was old and emotionally damaged, not the shy but adventurous young man whom Abigail fell in love with. By birth-year-age, Abigail is old enough to be Kazran's mother. By experience-age, Kazaran is better suited to be Abigail's grandfather than her lover, by the end of the show.

Abigail had already outlived her time by decades, thanks to being kept frozen. If she'd lived, she would have faced being left in a world where everyone she knew was either very elderly or already dead, and she was isolated and out of touch with the way society had changed while she slept. (Consider Bujold's latest Vorkosigan novel, Cryoburn, for what people who were cryofrozen might face being woken up decades or centuries in their future.)

One last special day together was a gift that the Doctor could give Abigail and Kazran which they would never have had naturally, when Abigail should have died when Kazran was a small boy. A stable and happy future together was beyond the Doctor's abilities, because humans live within time, and Abigail was already far out of her natural time and community.
Jacy Clark
18. Amalisa
I don't want to be, well, Scrooge...


Fish swimming in the air, riding a shark... okay. Judicious crossing of timelines... yeah, he's the Doctor. The last surviving Lord of Time. One must take it as read that he knows what he's doing.

But did anyone else twig to Old Kazran hugging Young Kazran? And no Reapers? Did we not learn anything from "don't touch the baby, Rose"? Something of an incovenient paradox, that. Or it's supposed to be. Isn't it?

The production quality was excellent. Matt Smith, lovely as always. I'm a huge fan of Katherine Jenkins and Michael Gambon, and they were both most welcome additions to the story. I enjoyed the Dickensian "Harry Potter" feel to it. Overall, I liked it a lot.

But that one jarring moment of "let's just disregard canon" bothered me... Honestly, I was bothered when dying Eleven grabbed not-dying Eleven in "The Big Bang", but the immediate payoff was the amazing moment when River Song made a Dalek beg for mercy. And they were all sort of existing outside of time. Or so I told myself.

In the Christmas episode, however, there really wasn't anything I could use to shrug it off. *shrugs* Oh, well. It's Moffat's show now and I suppose he has the right to alter the DW universe if it suits him. (Unlimited regenerations come immediately to mind...) In the overall scheme of things, I suppose it isn't a deal-breaker. It did, however, dim things a bit. For me, anyway...
Ursula L
19. Ursula
In "Rose", Rose first saved her father, which damaged her personal timeline. Her father's death was essential to making her the person she was at the moment she made the change. She then touched her baby-self, past and future of a damaged time-life.

Kazran was being acted upon by the Doctor, but he didn't initiate the changes and was not trying to control things.

I think it may be worth recognizing the difference between the active parties in a paradox and the passive parties in a paradox. Doing something to your own past changes your future, and the person who is doing things to that past. Doing things to someone else's past, when you're not tied to that person's past, lets you manipulate things without manipulating your own past.

So the Doctor can work to redeem Kazran, whom he never met before. But he couldn't go now and try to redeem Davros, because Davros and the Daleks are far too important in making the Doctor the person he is now, so that he'd be destroying himself in the process.
Jacy Clark
20. Amalisa
Other than the fact that it happened in "Father's Day" rather than"Rose", I like your reasoning and would gladly buy into it except that the Doctor never made that distinction. (Just watched the episode again to be sure.) His exact words, delivered in that no-nonsense tone that Eccleston elevated to an art form, were: "No. Don't touch the baby. You're both the same person and that's a paradox." Damaged, not damaged, active, passive... no distinction made one way or the other.

Again, it's Moffat's universe now and he can make the rules. I doubt it's the last change we'll see. It just bothered me, that's all... :)
Ursula L
21. Ursula
You're right, "Father's Day."

One difference is that "Father's Day" involved Nine. And Nine was rather bad about explainging things. He didn't talk to Rose before about the importance of not interfering with her father's death, even though there was no reason why she'd understand how dangerous it was. And he never explained to Rose about regeneration, for another example, leaving her confused and frightened when he regenerated.

By contrast, Eleven took the time to explain noninterference to Amy, at the beginning of "The Beast Below" - even though he then promptly violeted the principle. He's also mentioned regeneration to her. He's explained the difference between fixed points in time and opportunities, and Amy's also had a chance to learn more about how time works via River, and her careful attention to "spoilers."

In "Father's Day" Nine told Rose not to touch the baby, with the brief excuse that it is "paradox" but with no explanation of the nature of the paradox or the complexity of the situation they were in.

In "A Christmas Carol" the Doctor carefully orchestrates things to bring the two Kazran's together, with every expectation that they would touch.

The situations were different from a temporal perspective, and the Doctor understands that intuitively. In "A Christmas Carol" the Doctor carefully used that understanding to allow the two Kazrans to interact safely.

The problem in "Father's Day" is that the Doctor didn't understand Rose, how it would be instinctive for her to try to save her father, and how natural it is for humans to be drawn to babies, to want to hold and care for babies, and how it would be difficult (and rude) for Rose to refuse to hold the baby when offered. The Doctor also didn't understand that Rose didn't have his instictive understanding of how time works, and that she wouldn't automatically know what she can and can't do in her own past.
22. Tamuscat
# 20, 21 I'm just theorising here, but could it be that the 'paradox' was allowed this time because technically the two Kazrams were different persons? What I'm trying to say here is that in Rose, Rose and baby Rose were the same person; one was the past self of the other. In A Christmas Carol, the older Kazram was changing all the time due to the Doctor's interference. Maybe until the memories of the younger Kazram could sink in and reach the older Kazram fully, they were two different people and could interact for some time.

PS: As evidence for this theory, when the Doctor first interferes with Kazram's past, his memories don't change immediately. He says "That didn't happen ... ... but it did."
Talia T
23. TaliaG
One of the few episodes where I actually LIKED the time-loop plot device.
@10 Exactly. I thought they were cute but why is it such a big deal? I wasn;t thinking about what they might have been leading up to. Dress-up has always been a big part of their relationship (although, come to think of it, that might not get discussing until "Let's Kill Hitler" which might come later, I don;t remember)
@13. I was disappointed about that as well, but when you see what the writers(s) do to get rid of Amy and Rory in "The Angels take Manhatten" It's just the annoying "we don't feel like explaining why we ditched a character that the Doctor surely could have saved" although ...
@17, yeah, I guess that makes sense

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