A Dickens of a Good Time

Review of A Christmas Carol

Try as I might, I cannot find a way to make “Christmassy-wistmassy” sound good in a sentence.  But how else do you accurately describe the action in A Christmas Carol, which is simultaneously about as timey-wimey as we’ve seen and also unrelentingly inspired by the holiday season (and, more specifically, by its namesake)?  After a somewhat shaky start (“Christmas is canceled!”? What kind of rubbish line is that?), the episode turns rollicksome and barely pauses for breath.  Little details made me smile before the story really even began.  I mean, how can you not love Amy & Rory’s discomfiture at being caught with their barely-metaphorical pants down?  And after all that happened last series, it’s brilliant finally to see Arthur Darvill’s name in the credits.

From the title down, the whole episode is deliberately Dickensian – the Doctor himself makes a conscious decision to mimic the story when his answer to Amy’s query changes from “a Christmas carol” to “A Christmas Carol”.  Thus it’s no surprise right off to hear Kazran’s rant (“I call it expecting something for nothing!”) so closely echo Scrooge’s complaint that Christmas is “a poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December!”  It’s almost like a game to find as many references as you can, though perhaps it would be wise to stop before you started counting every little quasi-Victorian detail on the set.

While I’m on the topic of minutiae, I may as well mention the Doctor’s new jacket; his fabulous entrance; and the way he continues to be as frenetic as ever, delivering viciously funny lines that are all too easy to miss while you’re still laughing at the last one.  (A few of those – like the whole bit about the face spider – feel like something Moffat couldn’t bear to leave on his Wonderfully Scary Ideas clipboard despite the fact they wouldn’t support a stand-alone episode.)  I could point out how wonderful the Doctor’s comment about never having met someone “who wasn’t important” is or how well his eyes say “if only you knew” when Kazran spits his venom about trying on a broken heart for size.  Maybe I should mention the subtle use of the Doctor’s Theme when Kazran’s father tells him of the machine’s completion, and he seems to reject it, going to the drawer for the sonic screwdriver before finally rejecting the Doctor.  Or the way Amy’s exchange with the Doctor outside the TARDIS at the end harks back to the end of Forest of the Dead.

Perhaps, though, it would be more interesting to examine some of the overall themes of the episode.  With that in mind, I’ll present the rest of my thoughts on a theme-by-theme basis.

The Redemption of Kazran Sardick
The influence of Dickens’ story is obvious throughout, but less obvious is the sort of Hero’s Journey that Kazran undertakes.  His story clearly has all the hallmarks of the monomyth, though (as, for that matter, did Scrooge’s experiences).  The Doctor gives him the Call to Adventure (which he refuses).  It takes a Time Lord’s eye to find the clues to Kazran’s past (and I must say, the “what am I missing” scene played out here much better than it did with the experimental camerawork in Eleventh Hour), showing the old miser that he is not – does not have to be – like his father.  Ever the reluctant hero, Kazran does not heed the call, and forces the Doctor’s hand.

With his guide, Kazran travels the Road of Trials during their adventure with the shark, which eventually leads him to the Meeting with the Goddess – though a bit delayed, as it takes a few outings before she notices him first.  In the meantime, we see Kazran the Elder change subtly.  He learns as a boy why bow ties are cool and (unless my eyes deceived me), his cravat has changed to emulate his boyhood hero’s attire.  As they share more time with Abigail, the portrait in his study magically changes.  The portrait is an obvious visual metaphor to let the viewer follow the struggles of our still-reluctant hero.

One of the key aspects of the Hero’s Journey is that the hero must descend into darkness and face what he fears most.  “Halfway out of the dark” could hardly allude to that idea more strongly.  And when he reaches his Apotheosis – at his Atonement with the Father, which is actually himself – we see him Cross the Return Threshold (a beautiful twist on the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, though I’m still scratching my head about why reality didn’t implode á la Father’s Day).

It’s all thoroughly steeped in myth, which leads us quite nicely to the following theme.

The Fairy Tale Nature of the Doctor
It struck me on my second viewing how very Peter Pan the Doctor is here.  He appears at Kazran’s window to take him on a sort of adventure, then proceeds to fly around the room (bouncing on the bed), finally proving once and for all that he is not a responsible adult.  The childlike joy continues as he gets distracted on the way to the vault (“Ooh! Tree!”) and peaks with the rickshaw ride.  Eleven has certainly recaptured the joie de vivre that Ten nearly completely lost.

On the flip side of his puckishness, though, the Doctor is still a bit too practical at times.  As he told Amy in a deleted scene from last series, without someone else through which to experience things, he just “doesn’t see it” anymore.  (What’s more Christmassy than that, from a parent’s point of view?)  Kazran the Younger has to tell the Doctor quite literally to shut up when he goes on about the “real” reason Abigail’s voice is able to soothe the savage beast, when it’s much purer to accept it as Kazran says:  fish like the singing.

The Possibility of Foreshadowing
Maybe it’s just me, but I could’ve sworn that the be-goggled lackey who answered the call from the president at the beginning was Rory in disguise.  Either I’m delusional (a possibility I don’t deny), or that’ll be coming back to us in Series Six.  Then we get to the cold chamber, where the Doctor kept swatting at invisible “fish”, wondering why they kept biting him.  If that doesn’t reek of series foreshadowing, I don’t know what does.  I also had to wonder who the other figures in stasis were.  Only two besides Abigail were ever shown.  Was that a budgeting/storytelling short cut decision, or were those individuals’ faces shown to us so we could later point to them as harbingers of Plot Points Yet to Come?  It’s hard to know at this point how many little details deserve our attention, since Moffat first taught us to notice them all, and later seemed to renege on that philosophy.  These all seem to be items for the Time Will Tell files.

The Niggles of the Fangeek
“Fangeek” is about as lofty a title as I’m yet due, though I fly that flag high and proud.  Regardless, what I mean by “niggles” (stop thinking that, you naughty thing) is the parts that don’t quite seem right – the “what were they thinking?” bits.

First and foremost, it makes absolutely no sense that the Doctor would ask Abigail about the number on her ice box and then just casually toss it aside.  It’s obvious from the beginning (at least it was to me) that it’s how much time she has left – probably days (and, go figure, so it was).  It’s clear that they’re whittling away what little time she has left by taking her out of storage every few Christmas Eves.  So why doesn’t the Doctor – clever clogs that he is – suss that out?

Further, why talk about how ill she is without even mentioning whether or not medical technology has changed enough in the last 50 years (75?  How old was Kazran when she was first frozen, and how old at the end?) to save her?  I mean sure, Moffat needs to shed his “everybody lives” tendencies a bit more thoroughly, but in this case, it feels a bit of a loose thread.

One last little question.  What of the Doctor’s “rebuilding” sonic screwdriver?  Does it still need the other half inside the shark?  Will the Doctor just come back when the shark’s life is done and reclaim it?  Or will this lead to the next incarnation of his trusty omni-tool (perhaps a yellow one, if we continue the chromatic progression)?  Stay tuned, gentle viewer…

Concentrating on the pluses…
I have to say that the aforementioned niggles are just that:  smallish items that in no way detracted from the whole.  The Christmas special lived up to the name of special (perhaps more so than any of its predecessors) with a sense of pure fun, wonderful guest artists with glorious voices (here I include Michael Gambon with Katherine Jenkins), more of the madcap Doctor we’ve come to love, and some tantalizing tidbits to mull over as we await Series Six.

Bring it.

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