A Christmas Carol in geek TV

Feature Becky Lea 24 Dec 2013 - 07:00

With help from Star Trek, Buffy, Quantum Leap, & more, Becky traces the influence of Dickens' A Christmas Carol on geek TV...

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published on 17th December 1843, quickly became a firm favourite of the festive season. It is, as I’m sure you’re aware, a tale of a scheming miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, who is visited first by his dead business partner Jacob Marley and then by three ghosts, of Christmas Past, Present and those Yet To Come. After being confronted with the man he once was, the misery he inflicts on others and his solitary demise, Scrooge makes the decision to be a better man and starts to right the wrongs he has committed.

It's one of those stories that everyone knows, whether they've read the original Dickens or not. "Bah humbug" now appears on black Santa hats and to call someone a Scrooge is fairly commonplace if they're not covering themselves in tinsel or bellowing out All I Want for Christmas is You at random intervals. When it comes to adaptations of both the film and television variety, the story is practically its own institution with so many in existence that there is an entire Wikipedia page devoted to them all.

But what is it that makes this story so timeless? Thematically speaking, it covers the big concept of redemption, the desire inherent in anyone who may have strayed a little to get a second chance to do things right. It is also a story that taps into the Christmas spirit of forgiveness and renewal; not only does Scrooge have to want to change, but those around him must accept it too and forgive him for his previous transgressions. The structure of the three ghosts encompassing past, present and future, also allows for easy adaptation as it is something that can be transferred to different times and locations.

Like all good interpretations, the three television episodes mainly discussed here take A Christmas Carol as their starting point and put their own individual spin on the story. All the classic hallmarks are there, from the destructive miser at the centre, the appearances of the past, present and future, to the Christmas Eve setting. Only a few series' versions and references have been picked out because these are the episodes that do some really interesting things with the material.

“You petty tyrants... So predictable.”

No version of A Christmas Carol, faithful or interpretative, is complete without a despicable man in need of redemption at its centre. Ebenezer Scrooge begins his own story as a hateful man with a seemingly irrational dislike of the world and absolutely no desire to help anyone else in it. It is only when faced with his mistakes that he begins to realise just how much he is losing of himself by being so miserable.

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer's third season episode, Amends, Angel takes on the Scrooge role, albeit with a much darker history than even old Ebenezer managed to muster up. Amends is one of the most powerful versions of A Christmas Carol on this list with shades of It’s A Wonderful Life, twisting the conventions around to produce something a little more disturbing. Angel’s past crimes as his evil alter-ego Angelus come back to haunt him in the form of his previous victims. Though at first he thinks he’s hallucinating, it turns out to be the work of The First Evil, making their initial appearance here before going on to be the seventh season’s Big Bad. Like Scrooge's Ghost of Christmas Past, the First offers Angel a chance to see the man he once was and where he got lost along the way, though unlike Scrooge, they don't desire his redemption, but his fall.

The entire premise of Xena: Warrior Princess is one of redemption as the main character looks to atone for her previous mistakes, therefore it’s not too much of a surprise to see it turn to Dickens’ tale for a Christmas themed episode. In A Solstice Carol, the Scrooge figure is King Silvus, who, like Angel, has done some fairly awful things in his past, raising obscene taxes, evicting poor people from their homes, canceling Solstice celebrations and banning toys. Though considerably a more tongue-in-cheek version of Dickens than Buffy, Silvus is a dark centre to the episode, a man twisted into hatred by the loss of his wife Analia, echoing Scrooge’s doomed relationship with Belle.

For Quantum Leap’s take on Dickens, A Little Miracle, the Scrooge figure here is multi-millionaire property developer, Michael Blake, who is determined to pull down a Salvation Army mission to make way for his crowning achievement, the Blake Plaza. Like the previous Scrooge ciphers, Blake doesn’t necessarily know he’s suffering in himself as a result of his miserly ways. Sam leaps into the body of his valet, Pearson, and is immediately thrown into Blake’s diva-like demands; he wants a bigger Christmas tree, he ignores the Salvation Army Band at his door and generally behaves like a bit of an arse. Unlike the other two episodes, A Christmas Carol is referenced knowingly when Sam and Al, realising it’s Christmas Eve, decide to use Dickens as a template for their plan to get Blake to come to his senses and not destroy the mission.

“We’ll Scrooge him!”

Despite all of the horrible things we see these characters doing and saying, like Scrooge, we start to root for them to reform themselves as we see the positive and negative effects that they have on the world around them. What all of these episodes offer, like the original tale, is that sense of hope, that someone can atone for their mistakes and redeem themselves in the eyes of the ones they love.

The Scrooge figures of each of these episodes have done terrible things, some truly despicable (here’s looking at you Angel), yet they are offered that chance at redemption by those around them. It’s the use of the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future in some form or fashion that offer or attempt to deny this chance and, much like the original tale, it is these moments which bring a poignant note to the episodes in question.

Like Scrooge's Ghost of Christmas Past, the First appears to Angel as his former victims, including the recipient of the second most shocking death in Buffy history, Jenny Calendar. They torture him first in his dreams and then in his waking moments, trying to convince him to kill Buffy, but instead he decides to commit suicide, the last act of a desperate man determined to escape his past. It’s Buffy, in the dual role of the Ghosts of Present and Future that convinces him to fight for his redemption rather than give up. Yet, unlike Scrooge, Angel doesn’t wholly get to decide his own fate. Instead, it is left to a Christmas miracle to save him as the skies above Sunnydale remain dark for a freak snow storm that prevents the sunrise from burning him to a crisp.

Amends marks a crucial shift in Angel’s character, one that is no longer reliant on Buffy for definition. Just as Scrooge marches through the streets of London righting the wrongs he has committed along the way, Angel heads to the streets of LA to start helping those in need and discovering what he has to do to earn his redemption. This version of the story has more room to develop than the other episodes featured, precisely because it occurs with a regular character rather than an episodic narrative featuring guest stars.

For Xena, the story is less about Silvus’ redemption and more about her plan with Gabrielle to get him to change his mind. Giving the original tale a mythological twist, Jacob Marley is replaced with Gabrielle dressed as a rope-rigged floating version of Silvus’ supposedly dead wife who warns him to change his ways before it is too late. Xena then appears to him as the Three Fates (though with all of her teeth and both eyeballs), though she only manages past and present before Silvus’ wife in disguise appears to him in what he assumes to be the Fate of the future’s guise.

Like Dickens’ ghosts, Xena offers him glimpses of where he has come from, the awful effect on the world around him and then his wife offers him a chance for redemption. He takes it gladly, bringing back his the Solstice celebrations and uniting with Analia to live happily ever after. The episode has a lot of fun with the ghost template, particularly Lucy Lawless who gets to employ all sorts of outrageous accents when in disguise as the Three Fates. It’s done much more for humourous effect and as a result, it’s a little less heartwarming than Quantum Leap’s retelling, which is perhaps the most faithful to its original premise.

When Sam decides to ‘Scrooge’ Blake, he uses people around him to stand in for the three ghosts. For the past, he returns to Blake to the street on which he grew up; it’s a beautifully constructed scene in which the sounds of a leaky fire hydrant, a stick rattling across railings and his mother calling him into dinner return to haunt him. It's a neat twist on the Ghost of Christmas Past, an evocation of memory without a laboured flashback. Then, he finds an old friend of his selling chestnuts on the corner and begins chatting to him about times gone by, discovering his former best friend Charlie died a few years previously.

This marks a crucial turning point for Blake and, although Sam’s plan backfires a little at the Present stage when Blake figures it out that it’s a construct, it sets him on a path of self-doubt, one that finds him drinking alone on Christmas Eve. Then, thanks to Blake’s brainwaves operating at a similar level to Sam’s, Al is able to appear to Blake as the Ghost of Christmas Future. It all goes a bit madcap here with Dean Stockwell dialing it up to eleven in his performance to convince Blake of his future financial ruin and suicide, but it does the job well. The final scene with the star shining the way to the Salvation Army mission’s door may be a little hokey, but there is an undeniable emotional moment in which Blake asks if they have room for one more lost soul.

"Am I a thing worth saving? Am I a righteous man?"

Elements of A Christmas Carol are not limited to Christmas-oriented episodes either. Doctor Who has tackled the story itself in 2010’s Christmas special also titled A Christmas Carol, but most recently, certain aspects and themes (most notably redemption) appeared in anniversary episode The Day of the Doctor, in which John Hurt’s Scrooge-like War Doctor is forced to face up to the consequences of his potential actions. The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors represent the man he is to turn into should he decide to commit the act of genocide which would destroy both the Daleks and Gallifrey. He’s aided in his decision by the presence of the Moment’s interface who gently pokes and prods his conscience until the three men decide to change their fate and, as a result, offers the potential for the new Doctor to go off and find Gallifrey.

Elsewhere, the story has also been referenced several times throughout Star Trek in both The Next Generation and in Voyager. Here, it becomes a tool for characters attempting to learn about or regain their humanity in Data and Seven of Nine respectively. In Voyager’s The Omega Directive, Seven is told to read A Christmas Carol for educational value whilst Data performs as Scrooge in TNG’s Devil’s Due. In both cases, it is suggested that the characters are learning more about what it means to be human in the process; for Data in particular, it takes on a performative quality, teaching him to access the emotions that Scrooge feels. When asked what he has learnt from the story, Data acknowledges that fear can be a powerful motivation for someone to change, though in the wrong hands, it all could all go terribly wrong.

Throughout all of these stories, fear is a crucial element and perhaps the most important reason for why A Christmas Carol still resonates for audiences 130 years after its first publication. I’ve largely focused on the way in which Scrooge is reinterpreted in these episodes, but other themes creep in to the stories too. Both Quantum Leap and Xena: Warrior Princess highlight the capitalist themes of the original text too, with the poor of Salvation Army mission and the orphanage threatened with eviction linking back to Cratchit’s family struggling with their own Christmas. In an age of the financial recession and the rising number of food banks, the themes of capitalist greed and its victims still resonate.

Yet, I think, it is the personal story of redemption at the heart of the tale that we latch on to most as an audience. Scrooge, like Angel, Silvus and Blake, is a man alone against a world in which he sees himself no longer fitting and all it takes is for someone to tap into that fear and make him realise how isolated he is for him to want to change. It’s something that taps into our own fears of isolation too, particularly at Christmas time when the emphasis is on spending time with friends and family. It also serves to show that anyone can be saved and given a second chance if they’re ready for it.

Read more about A Christmas Carol's TV and film adaptations on Den of Geek, here.

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