'Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol' Is the Must See Episode of the Year

Guest stars Michael Gambon and Katherine Jenkins join Matt Smith as the Doctor tries to save a miserly old soul who may be beyond redemption in this 2010 Doctor Who Christmas special.

Doctor Who

Distributor: BBC
Cast: Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill, Michael Gambon, Katherine Jenkins, Laurence Belcher, Danny Horn
Network: BBC One
Release date: 2011-02-15

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.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.