I've finally had a chance to watch the Christmas Doctor Who
for a second time so here we go with a review of the first attempt by the Moffat/Smith team. I make a habit of watching DW
twice before reviewing anyway but even more so with the Christmas special, which I sometimes find disappointing the first time because of the weight of expectation, then like it better on a second viewing. "A Christmas Carol" I enjoyed on the day but I still found more to like the second time.
When Series 5 ended I said I hoped Arthur Darvill would get his name into the opening credits and indeed he has, although as I suspected once again the opening credit sequence that worked great with two names flashing up goes a bit wobbly when there's three. I could understand them maybe not anticipating it with the Eccleston/Tennant credits that looked quite rushed at times but this time they had a precedent (and the whole of Series 5 had been shot by the time it first aired so surely they knew a revamp would be needed soon enough.) It's more obvious this time because of the thunder and lightning which brought the names onto the screen, now with more names to squeeze in only Matt Smith's is in time with the thunder. Sorry, I'm just a credits geek. On to the actual story.
Which despite its superficially Christmassy trappings was remarkably secular. Not that RTD's specials ever identified Christmas as a religious holiday but it's refreshing to me how much Steven Moffat's script makes a point of saying it's not
. From the opening we have Kazran's speech which makes the festival's origins with the Winter Solstice very clear while the Doctor reiterates later that Christmas is "halfway out of the dark." This unnamed planet's solstice festival was originally called the Crystal Feast and it seems implicit that the word "Christmas" is only used from then on as a sort of a shorthand. I always thought that if I ran Doctor Who
my Christmas special would involve druids and in a way it felt like The Moff was doing something similar here, making a non-religious Christmas story but doing it subtly.
On to the guest stars and of course Sir Michael Gambon is perfectly cast as the Scrooge-like Kazran Sardick, his portrayal of a man whose memories are changing and his personality with them is marvellously nuanced. Like most people I was worried about Katherine Jenkins getting the other plum role as Abigail, since she's never acted before. Of course, she's never been in an opera before either and yet people insist on calling her an opera singer. I didn't think she did a bad job as such but was a bit wooden - her singing was a major plot point but since she mimed so badly to her own voice I'm not sure why a less well-known young actress couldn't have been given the job and the profile boost. I know the Christmas Special likes a big-name guest star but isn't Dumbledore enough? Meanwhile Arthur Darvill might have got into the opening credits but he and Karen Gillan were hardly on screen - I'm assuming this was a "double bank" episode and they were off filming a Doctor-lite one at the same time? If so that makes a lot of sense to me, three regular companions in a row leaving at series' end means in recent years we've got used to a Christmas Day show with guest stars rather than regulars and of course storywise Amy and Rory's honeymoon is a handy way to get them offscreen a lot of the time.
This being the Moff, of course, the aforementioned honeymoon means we get one of his patented dirty jokes that'll go over the kids' heads. Having seen photos, everyone was wondering why Amy and Rory were in their naughty cop / centurion outfits on a space cruiser. I'd foolishly thought "fancy dress party" but this is the creator of Coupling
after all so in fact the emergency interrupted them in the honeymoon suite where they were dressed up for reasons they'd rather not go into right now, thank you. Although I snorted even harder at another gag a bit later on, when the Doctor first visits young Kazran and thinks better of looking under a 12-year-old boy's bed; a joke somehow made funnier when it's such an angelic-looking 12-year-old as Laurence Belcher (whom I saw on stage earlier this year in The Late Middle Classes
and who is again very good here.) Speaking of people I've seen onstage this year, Leo Bill who was in Posh
and is currently appearing in one of my top shows of 2010, The Glass Menagerie
, has a small role as the pilot on the space cruiser.
With the publicity having told us this would be a Doctor Who
version of "A Christmas Carol" it seemed obvious how someone with a time machine would reenact that story but once again Moffat goes for the timey-wimey approach, with us watching the older Kazran's memories change. At first he remembers things at the same time as seeing them on screen but once the camera falls victim to the flying shark (henceforth to be known as Feargal) we see him follow the story as the memories appear in his head, and getting excited about them all over again. It's sailing a bit close to the wind with regard to how much sense any of this makes of course but it's not quite as brainmeltingly paradoxical as the last series of Misfits
, plus having a lead character with knowledge of the rules of time beyond us mortals does give a writer a handy getout. And then, because this is an incarnation of the Doctor who's far from fallible, his go at being the Ghost of Christmas Past fails as young Kazran (now played by the cheekbonetacular Danny Horn) almost becomes a better man only to go right back down the Scrooge path thanks to a broken heart. I like how there's a moment when the Doctor could have found out about this well in advance but he gets distracted just as he's enquiring why Abigail might need a team of doctors, and so misses out on the information she ends up telling Kazran years later. (And while we're on the fact that Matt Smith's Doctor isn't as godlike as his predecessor, can you imagine Abigail dying at the end if RTD had written this story?)
As ever the episode looks great, the cloud cover that forms the basis of the peril gives the episode a gloomy look reminiscent of a ghost story (which is, after all, what it's based on) while even the flying fish somehow work. I was a bit critical of Feargal at first but to be honest real sharks look pretty unlikely at the best of times, like a mutated prehistoric creature that's somehow still around, so even when you get it right it's going to look a bit off. Actually on rewatching it the visuals really stood out to me, there's a dangerous beauty to the episode with moments of peace and if Gambon's opening speech, with a long-coated Kazran looking out of a porthole window into an ocean of cloud, doesn't say the series' current keyword of "fairytale" I don't know what does. Actually come to think of it the changes made to the series partly due to the budget cuts (which I personally can't say I've noticed in the special effects) seem to have been reflected in how the show is viewed even on a marketing point of view: Where in previous years preview clips have got our interest by showing the TARDIS in a car chase or the Titanic crashing in space, this year the image that first came out in trailers was of Eleven in a comfy armchair, announcing himself as the Ghost of Christmas Past.
Oh and Abigail's song at the end made lots of references to The Silence. Iiiiiinteresting...