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.
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 Stephan 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!
The next risk that came right away was the depiction of just how bad of dude Kazran was. Not only is he okay with all those people dying on the crashing spaceship, but he straight up almost hits a 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. Lucky I was right.
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 scheme is primarily manifested in the form of going on Christmas Eve outings with a woman in cryogenic freeze named Abigail.
Kazran’s family are money lenders and the way they take down- payments from a family that is indebted to them is by putting one family member in cryogenic freeze. Abigail is one of these poor souls, which old evil Kazran refers to as “the surplus population”. If you’re going to do sci-fi Dickens, you might as well have the “surplus population” be completely literal science fictional construct, right? In any case, whether part of The Doctor’s plans or not, young Kazran eventually falls for Abigail. But alas she has a limited lifespan, and after all of The Doctor’s hijinx, she only has one Christmas Eve left!
This is where I really like Stephen Moffat’s paradox time-line 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. Because Moffat and co decide to tug on our heartstrings next.
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 re-written. 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. Any of you who saw this scene last night I didn’t have the same reaction, likely have a heart of pure evil.
The final risk taken by this episode was the variously flying fish, specifically the shark. Yes, 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.
Ryan Britt’s writing has been featured here, as well as published with Nerve.com, Clarkesworld Magazine, and elsewhere. He really, really liked the flying fish in the Doctor Who Christmas Special last night.