We should all be thankful that "reining the shark" is unlikely to become a meme
Since Doctor Who returned to television in 2005, the annual Christmas special has become as much of a tradition as eating and drinking too much, ignoring The Queen's Speech, and someone getting thrown out of the Queen Vic on EastEnders. It's also been traditional for these episodes to be pretty terrible. I am perhaps veering into the realms of hyperbole (Absolutely No-one: "You, Ed? Surely not!") but even the most die hard fans of The Doctor - and I'd consider myself John McClane in this scenario (though I, like most men, like to think of myself as John McClane in any scenario) - would have a hard time arguing that The Christmas Invasion, The Runaway Bride, Voyage of the Damned or even The End of Time rank amongst the series' best.
There's a number of reasons why past Christmas specials have been weak, but in the broadest possible terms it boils down to the Christmas stories being too separate to matter much to the series as a whole, yet not separate enough to entirely work as standalone stories. You can't introduce any startlingly new concepts or enemies because the audience would have to wait three months to find out what is going to happen next, which would make the episode unsatisfying, yet the whole notion of a Christmas special means that the episode has to be, well, special, and has to do something that is out of the ordinary, which is a doubly difficult task for a show that features a two-hearted alien who travels through time in a police box. "Out of the ordinary" is kind of the norm.
Whereas previous specials have focused on big, end of the world situations, A Christmas Carol scaled everything back. It still delivered plenty of thrills and excitement for the audience, and there were still lives at stake - the story kicks off when Amy and Rory, who are honeymooning on a starliner, call on The Doctor for help when the ship gets caught in a mysterious fog - but the focus was much more human, and on one human in particular.
Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon) is a miserly old gentleman who loans out money to people, using cryogenically frozen members of their family as collateral. His path crosses with The Doctor's because he controls the machine that is manipulating the clouds above his planet - a world with an aesthetic which could best be described as Victorian London meets Dark City and where fish swim in the atmosphere - but he refuses to help, which prompts The Doctor to decide to take on the role of Ghost of Christmas Past.
When I heard that this year's special was going to be based on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, I was both excited and a little bit wary. Given how revitalised the show has been since Matt Smith and Steven Moffat took over as Doctor and showrunner, respectively, I was anxious to see whether or not they could break the curse and finally deliver a satisfying Christmas special, yet they were also going to a well that was so dry that people have started digging other wells inside the original just to get the tiniest drop of water out of it. When untold thousands of films and TV shows have adapted A Christmas Carol over the last century, how can Doctor Who hope to do something new and surprising?
Apart from the basic premise, which is straight out of A Christmas Carol (and the cryogenically frozen people, which is taken from The Old Curiosity Shop) Moffat quickly found new ways to bend the story to his particular whims, delivering a story with the sort of clever, inventive and achingly sad time travel twists that have become his signature. The Doctor shows Karzan an old recording of himself as a child which ends, as Karzan remembers, with his father (also played by Gambon) beating him. The recording changes, though, when The Doctor hops in the TARDIS, then walks through Young Karzan's (Laurence Belcher) window, to the astonishment of the grown Karzan. That never happened before. Except it did. The Doctor starts to change Karzan's young life, and his memories, in the hopes of changing him into a better person so that he can save Amy, Rory and all the other people in the starliner.
The idea of someone watching as their memories are changed, yet still remembering how they used to be, reminded me of one of my favourite Twilight Zone episodes, "Walking Distance," in which a man finds himself in his own childhood and inadvertently inflicts an injury on his younger self which manifests itself on his adult body. (If anyone has the DVD, that episode is worth watching if only for the audio track, in which an increasingly frustrated Rod Serling tries to explain the idea of a paradox to a group of perplexed university students.) I'm not sure if Moffat had this in mind when he wrote the episode, but the same basic idea delivered a pretty similar emotional punch.
Here is where the complication arises; in his efforts to help make Karzan a better person, The Doctor awakens Abigail (Katherine Jenkins), a young woman who has been frozen in the vaults of his father's house, and who has to go back into stasis at the end of the day if Karzan's father is to be kept in the dark about his son's activities. Every subsequent Christmas Eve, The Doctor and Karzan awaken Abigail, and Karzan falls deeper and deeper in love with her. They only discover too late that every time they bring her out, she loses one of the precious few days that she has left to live, forcing Karzan to realise that he must keep her frozen, or risk losing her forever.
Doctor Who has always flirted with the ridiculous, and the scene in which The Doctor, Karzan and Abigail dash through the sky in a one-shark open sleigh must rank up there as one of the most ridiculous, but what makes it such a great show is its ability to ground that sense of the absurd in moments of human pain. Here, The Doctor changes Karzan's life, turning him from a bitter to a better man, but in doing so exposes him to a love and an absence of that love that has scarred and embittered him in a wholly new way. Though, as The Doctor points out, it is better to have a broken heart than no heart at all, and ultimately Karzan helps The Doctor save everyone on the starliner and awakens Abigail for their first, and last, Christmas Day together.
There's so much more to this year's special that I haven't covered, but considering how long this recap has gotten I think it's best to wrap things up. As far as I'm concerned, whilst the special did not hit the heights that the last series did, it was far and away the most satisfying special so far, and that is not the back-handed compliment that it could have been considering the weak competition.
There was plenty of spectacle, humour and the little character moments that make the show a joy to watch week in and week out. (My personal favourite being the way that The Doctor, upon being told that Abigail is "nobody important" replies, with mock fascination, "Nobody important? Blimey, that's amazing. Do you know, in 900 years of time and space, I've never met anyone who wasn't important before." It's a line that sums up the basic love of humanity and life that makes The Doctor such a charismatic and beautiful character, and Smith delivers that line with his customary aplomb.)
It also helped that the guests this year were a cut above, particularly Michael Gambon, who brings such grace and gravity to even the most slight and ridiculous of roles, and here had so much room to explore his two similar but crucially different characters. In the course of an hour, we saw him cruel, dejected, depressed, heartbroken and elated. It was a great performance that gave weight to a story that could have been too much of a trifle without it.
So, I'll stop there, wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and say that I am positively giddy and returning to writing about the show weekly when it returns next year. (The trailer for the new series at the end of the episode made it look like a very promising year.)