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.
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!
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 ChinaShopMag.com, PinkRaygun.com, Newsarama, and PopMatters.com. 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 Nerve.com, Clarkesworld Magazine, and elsewhere. He really, really liked the flying fish in the Doctor Who Christmas Special last night.