Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol spoiler-free review

Can Steven Moffat weave the foundations of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol into a Doctor Who Christmas special? Here's our spoiler-free review...

Well, you can never accuse Steven Moffat of taking the easy way out.

For his first Doctor Who Christmas special, he’s done away with massive monsters, old foes and visiting companions’ extended families. In its place, he’s decided to try and weave Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol into a Doctor Who story, while also putting together a tense, festive adventure for the Time Lord.

Not for the first time, he’s set himself a big challenge. And not for the first time, he really has delivered the goods.

We’ll do the basics of the story, first. We’re not giving anything away here that’s not common knowledge, but if you want to go into the episode completely cold, then jump to the red marked text coming up.

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In terms of where the episode sits in the chronology of Moffat’s tenure on the show, it picks up with Rory and Amy on their honeymoon, him in his armour, her as a policewoman. Said honeymoon is on a spaceship that harks right back to Star Trek (right down to a Geordi La Forge wannabe on the deck), with a dab of classic Who design in there too, and said spaceship hits trouble in a cloud, endangering the lives of the 4003 people on board (although that looks a tight squeeze to us, given the size of the ship – bigger on the inside, right?).

Cue mad distress. Cue the Doctor. Cue the opening credits.

Yet, from this point on, and for most of its duration, A Christmas Carol is a considerable stiller, focused episode (certainly a lot more so than that opening might have you believe), and one that soon has us introduced to the Scrooge-like figure of the story, Sardick, played by Michael Gambon. He’s holding the fate of the ship in the sky in his hands, and as Amy and Rory take a backseat for a chunk of the story, the focus instead switches to him, the Doctor, and Katherine Jenkins’ Abigail Pettigrew.

That’s as much of the story as we’re going to reveal here, as the real fun is in seeing how well it falls into place.

Instead, we need to talk once more about Mr Steven Moffat.

It really is an impressive piece of writing once more that he’s put together, and we’ll never tire of saying so. Firstly, he weaves in the strands of A Christmas Carol in a manner that both appreciates the Dickens text, but also works properly for Doctor Who (it’s not a slavish adaptation, rather a clever one). Then, he coils his narrative expertly, structuring it in a way that allows him to keep you firmly on your feet.

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Plus, he remembers to throw in at least one big scare. It’s a good one, too.

What he also does is tip the hat to some of his other writing work. We get a bit of Sherlock-style deducing for one, but also there’s space for some very, very funny Coupling-esque relationship advice. It knits together, as you’d hope, very well indeed.

Matching Moffat on this one is director Toby Haynes. Haynes helmed the closing two parter of the last series, and has directed the opener for the next. His work here, though, is going to take some beating. Doctor Who directors rarely get the credit they deserve, and Haynes deserves lots of it. His opening post-credits shot, for instance, is a real treat, and his camera adds to the Dickensian feel superbly well. And even when he’s re-using locations, he keeps his shots interesting, the the tone just right.

In front of the camera, Matt Smith continues to own the role of the Doctor, and here, he particularly excels in setting the scene and then perfectly pitching a collection of witty Moffat one-liners. You get less Karen Gillen and Arthur Darvill (whose name now comes before the credits), and instead, it’s Michael Gambon and Katherine Jenkins who pick up the slack.

Gambon is clearly having a lot of fun here, and makes for a strong Scrooge-like figure. And for those fearing Katherine Jenkins is stunt casting gone wrong, then fear not. The part fits her a treat, and even when she opens her mouth to belt out a song, you’re unlikely to mind. We’ve seen songs shoehorned uncomfortably into Doctor Who in the past, but not here. (We wouldn’t entirely wager against a few grumblers, mind.) Murray Gold’s score tucks terrifically well around the many deliberately quiet and steady moments of the story, too.

What doesn’t work? Well, we do wonder if this one will appeal to the very young audience that Doctor Who attracts quite as well as it will to everyone else. For it should be said that this is not an outright blockbuster Christmas episode, save for some solid effects-based action sequences. Also, and this is no criticism, Moffat’s storytelling is suitably intricate (also including many lines and references for the older viewer). But we did still catch the fidgets of a couple of the youngsters in the screening where we saw A Christmas Carol, which tallied slightly with our thinking, and did raise very minor alarm bells. That said, we might have read that entirely incorrectly.

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Anyway, the majority, we suspect, will enjoy this a lot, especially those who really warmed to the direction that series five of revived Who took (if you’re not a convert by now, A Christmas Carol won’t be changing your mind). We certainly did.

Still, the proof of that pudding will be on Christmas Day, and the news here is good: this is a very Christmassy, sometimes quite dark, often quite unpredictable and ultimately strong Doctor Who Christmas special. It’s also really quite mad (there’s lots we’re not telling you), undoubtedly festive, and it treats the Dickens source material with respect.

It’s a lot different from the end of an era stories we were getting last year, certainly. But it’s also as good an hour of telly as you’re going to find this Christmas, we’d wager.

Hats off to you, Mr Moffat. Roll on the spring…

Many thanks to the BFI South Bank for hosting the screening.

Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol will screen on 25th December 2010 at 6pm on BBC One. Viewers in America also get the episode on Christmas Day: BBC America is screening it at 9pm.

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