Since the 2005 rebirth of the series, the annual Doctor Who Christmas Special has increasingly become the most visually spectacular, emotionally satisfying, must-watch episode of the year. First, it was because it marked the regeneration of Christopher Eccleston’s ninth Doctor into David Tennant’s tenth; in 2009 it was required viewing because it summed up Tennant’s, and producer Russell T. Davies’, time on the TARDIS, while simultaneously paving the way for another reset as Stephen Moffatt took the show’s controls and Matt Smith stepped into the role of the Doctor.
In order to live up to its status as a true television event, the Christmas 2010 episode needed to match its predecessors by boasting an impressive group of guest stars while being a visually stunning and narratively engaging piece of entertainment that captures all the myth and magic—not to mention the inherent Britishness—of Doctor Who. Moffatt also wanted it to encapsulate all the mirth and magic of Christmas itself, and to do so from a distinctly British perspective. Where better to start, then, than with Charles Dickens?
Dickens is, of course, already a part of the Doctor’s universe with the ninth Doctor meeting him in the 2005 episode “The Unquiet Dead”, so it wouldn’t do at all to have the same old remake of the classic holiday tale. Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol puts a whole new spin on the Christmas spirit, as it were, with the Doctor himself slipping into several seasonal roles. He’s part Santa Claus, part ghost of Christmas past and, just for good measure, a little bit Clarence from It’s A Wonderful Life. Moffatt doesn’t forget it’s a Doctor Who story, either, there is plenty of classic science fiction, fantasy and good, old-fashioned, hide-behind-the-sofa startling and scary moments in addition to the holiday themes.
The episode opens with a slick, sci-fi starliner in distress in the icy cloud layers of Sardicktown, an Earth colony that resembles a sort of steam-punk Victorian city. Aboard this doomed flight are thousands of innocent people, including newlyweds Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill). The honeymooners send out a signal to the Doctor (Matt Smith), who races to the rescue. However, in order to prevent a crash and inevitable loss of life, the cloud layers must be unlocked and the only man capable of this is the miserly old Kazran Sardick.
Sardick (Michael Gambon), is the Scrooge of this story. He owns the town. A machine invented by his father and programmed to respond to only him controls the clouds, so he owns those too. He refuses to help the Doctor save the doomed ship, simply because he can. He does not care. This is further demonstrated by the fact that he’s a heartless money-lender who takes family members from the townsfolk as collateral. Upon the Doctor’s dramatic entrance, in fact, he is denying a poor family their wish to have their lovely relative released for just one night, Christmas eve. She stands, suspended in an ice chamber, before them as an example of Sardick’s hard heart, but frozen in chambers beneath his mansion are all the other people who his father has designated “the surplus population”, and who Sardick deems unimportant.
It’s this last bit that infuriates the Doctor. Not only is he angry at Sardick’s general cruelty and his indifference to the thousands of souls on Amy and Rory’s vessel that will die within the hour if the ship can’t land safely, the Doctor knows that there is no such thing in the whole of the universe as someone who is not important.
Gambon is so magnificent and imposing as the horrible humbug, that at first, even the Doctor can see no good in the selfish old man. Yet just when he’s pegged him as irredeemable, the Doctor notices something that makes him think Sardick may still be saved. It’s here that Moffatt pulls out the first of his brilliant twists on A Christmas Carol. Rather than having the Sardick visited by three spectres, the Doctor takes a turn as “Christmas Past” by paying a visit to 12-year-old Kazran Sardick in an attempt to discover and prevent whatever caused him to grow into such a villain. While the Doctor does this, he is also showing old Sardick his past, and as a consequence, Sardick’s memories are changing right before his eyes. Time can be rewritten and that’s exactly what the Doctor intends to do.
Young Kazran (Laurence Belcher) is terrified of his heavy-handed father (also played by Gambon), and is both fearful and fascinated with what lurks in Sardicktown’s skies. For you see, the ice crystals above the cloud layer are teaming with… fish. Ok, so flying fish don’t sound so fascinating, but the Doctor is intrigued. It seems that’s why Kazran’s father is building the machine, because if he controls the clouds, he can control when the fish come down to the surface to feed.
The Doctor being the Doctor, he sets the bait so that young Kazran, not to mention the Doctor, can finally see the fish. Of course, the Doctor being the Doctor, this does not go to plan. Kazran believes that the fish like singing—though the Doctor assures him it’s just resonation in the ice crystals—and wakes one of the “surplus population” from her frozen slumber because she can sing. In another, not unexpected twist, she is naturally the very person Sardick referred to as unimportant when the Doctor first arrived, because Stephen Moffatt is tidy storyteller as well as a fantastical one. Abigail (the stunning Katherine Jenkins), who loves the fish just as much as she loves Christmas, has a voice of unparalleled beauty. Her haunting song (composed by the incomparable Murray Gold) soon calms the skies and the trio embarks on a mad midnight adventure full of wild whimsy.
Her voice isn’t Abigail’s only beautiful attribute, and just as she’s returning to her ice chamber, a smitten Kazran promises that the Doctor returns for such adventures every Christmas eve. A gorgeous, and humorously detailed montage of subsequent Christmases follow. Kazran begins to grow up and he and Abigail begin to fall in love. These scenes are so wonderfully engaging that it would be easy to forget that there are thousands of people in peril above the planet in the future, even with the interspersed shots of old Sardick pouring over just-found photographs as these new memories are forming. The Doctor hasn’t forgotten, though, he’s convinced he is saving Amy and Rory, and Kazran Sardick, too. Even as the reason Abigail is not now present in the future becomes clear to the viewer, it escapes the Doctor and when an adult Kazran (Danny Horn) abruptly elects to discontinue the yearly adventures and follow in his father’s tyrannical footsteps, leaving Abigail in her icy suspension, the Doctor can’t understand where he went wrong.
It’s worth pointing out here that for all the fabulous, magical things that the Doctor can do, that the Doctor is, it’s really the identification with the hope this being brings that keeps us coming back to these tales again and again. Yes it’s gorgeous to watch. Yes it’s clever. Yes it’s exciting. However, where Moffatt, and Matt Smith, especially, excel is in imbuing Doctor Who with great emotional pull. When the Doctor shows up outside Kazran’s bedroom window one last time, and is turned away, you can almost see his twin hearts breaking. When he returns to the time in which the starliner crash is imminent, his last ditch effort to change Kazran Sardick by invoking the ghost of that which is yet to come is filled with a mix of deep regret and redoubled determination. These play across Smith’s face perfectly, as does the frantic, scrambled thinking the Doctor must do when he realizes he has, in fact, changed Sardick, and that’s the very thing that now prevents operation of the cloud control machine.
It’s not a spoiler to say that, of course, the Doctor triumphs just in time. It wouldn’t be Christmas without a happy ending, and these days, it wouldn’t be Christmas without Doctor Who.
Even if it is bit more Christmas-y than in previous Christmas episodes, Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol wouldn’t be complete without creating anticipation for the upcoming season, which begins in spring, so the DVD includes the trailer for Season Six. It also features a look behind the scenes with Doctor Who Confidential and Doctor Who at the Proms 2010, filmed at the Royal Albert Hall during the BBC’s annual Proms concert series. The concert hosted by Smith, Gillan and Darvill features appearances from many of the Doctor’s adversaries, including the Weeping Angels, the Daleks and the creepy Vampire Girls from season five’s “The Vampires of Venice”. The Doctor himself even makes a surprise appearance. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Ben Foster, performs a selection of Murray Gold’s music from the series, including the iconic Doctor Whotheme.