Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol review

Steven Moffat takes Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and weaves it into a terrific Doctor Who Christmas special. Here's our spoiler-filled review...

Warning: spoilers lie ahead! Our spoiler-free take on this episode is here.

Now how about that for packing plenty into one 60 minute episode? Taking the basics of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as its basis, Steven Moffat skilfully wove the well-known and well-filmed tale into a intriguing and layered Doctor Who story. For a Christmas episode, too, it was relatively light on action, as instead, Moffat pooled together the ingredients for a real cracker of a story.

Firing out of the gates with a Star Trek homage, a crashing spaceliner, the continuation of the Rory/Amy relationship and plenty of jokes particularly at the former’s expense, you could have been forgiven at first for thinking that this was going to be a loud, comedic, action adventure.

Yet it wasn’t long before Moffat slowed the pace right down, aided by some terrific, atmospheric direction from Toby Haynes (backed by strong production design). Seemingly effortlessly transporting us into a Dickensian world, we were then soon introduced to the Scrooge of the piece, played by Michael Gambon. Only here, Scrooge goes by the name of Kazran Sardick. And he’s more complicated than the average miser.

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The central narrative around which the story was built is that Kazran has in his power the ability to save the thousands of people stuck in a cloud of his making, and yet he refuses to do. From there, much of the episode is spent subtlety breaking down the veneer of the character, by, amongst other tools, clever use of time travel.

Moffat’s brilliant at this, pulling little surprises such as the moment when Sardick Junior sees his father, Elliot, in full rant. And that turns into a lovely moment that matters, simply because time has been taken to set the characters up properly. Michael Gambon’s terrific performance shouldn’t be sneezed at, either, evoking real sympathy for Sardick’s story. Heck, just look at how still he is as the Doctor first travels back to see the younger version of Sardick for the first time, while the older one watches. It’s terrifically written, well shot, and excellently played.

Katherine Jenkins is no slouch, either. She plays a pivotal role here, and avoids the fear of stunt casting in the process. Thinking back, she doesn’t actually get a great deal of screen time, yet her slow demise, and Sardick’s torment over which day should be her last, is wonderfully done.

The closest comparison we can pull to the casting on Jenkins is the appearance of Kylie Minogue in the fun, bombastic Voyage Of The Damned. Minogue, playing Astrid, was also doomed to not reach the end credits, and yet the emotional resonance of the character of Abigail Pettirgrew seemed much more important. Heck, I was even impressed at how well Jenkins’ singing was weaved into the story.

Jenkins and Gambon did have to do quite a bit of heavy lifting here, though, as A Christmas Carol relegated Amy and Rory to the bench for most of the episode. What time we did get with them firmly established the status quo between the pair, with a lovely, comedic sequence at the start offering ample demonstration of just how Amy views and treats Rory. We can surely expect that strand to be explored a lot further in the upcoming series of the show. That’s apparently going to be appearing on the soundtrack CD this coming February, too.

Then there were the fish. These were, I thought, a lovely idea, far different from your average monsters, and very well realised too, allowing the episode its big jump moment, as the Doctor went fishing in Kazran’s closet. It was nicely done, and the fish were generally in keeping with the quite calm tone of much of the episode. They made for decent monsters, too, and as with every foe in the Moffat world, they had their reasons for being as they are.

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I suppose if the episode had a weakness (and this is being really picky), it comes with the demands of doing a Christmas special. For I loved the middle of the story, where the story pieces were being gently moved around the board into place, moreso than I did the more action-packed top and tail. That’s not to say the action and the effects were shabby, rather they were the least interesting moments in a strong episode. As I noted in the spoiler-free review, too, given the generally louder and more straightforward Yuletide stories we’ve had in the past, I do wonder if, particularly much younger viewers (even accepting that they have more open minds than most), would have enjoyed A Christmas Carol quite as much.

I certainly did, though, and even now, there are still things that we’ve not talked about that I absolutely loved. The comedy, for starters, was pin-sharp, particularly when the Doctor starts dishing out relationship advice. Matt Smith, and we didn’t talk about this enough last series, is a genuinely impressive comedy actor, and his delivery here was very strong (it was an excellent performance all-round to be fair, too). Moffat’s writing, too, harked back to Coupling at its very best, and half had me thinking that we’d sort of got the Coupling Christmas special that we never had.

I also enjoyed the fun the episode had with the likes of the psychic paper, the sonic screwdriver, the Doctor getting married, and the random introduction of Frank Sinatra. It was gloriously bonkers, and all the better for it. And when you consider just how much got crammed into the hour, you have to conclude it’s some achievement.

A Christmas Carol is, ultimately, a fitting end to one of Doctor Who’s very strongest years. It kicked off with The End Of Time Part 2 on New Year’s Day (and that feels longer than a year ago), and has taken us through a compelling 13-part series five, and now iced the proverbial cake with a rounded, self-contained, extremely-Christmassy yet quietly ambitious Yuletide extravaganza. A terrific one at that, too.

Furthermore, on the basis of the teaser trailer for next year, there are more treats lying ahead. And so you can happily add me to the list of people counting down the days to Doctor Who’s return. For as the Christmas special proves, as if further proof was needed, the show is in exceptionally safe hands.

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