Now that Series 5 of Doctor Who has wrapped up with a wild thrill ride of a finale, it’s time for Steven Moffat to write his first Christmas special for the series. Doctor Who’s Christmas specials are always an interesting experience to read into, because they serve a different purpose than your usual episode: they’re usually written to be standalone stories, and they normally don’t have to do any heavy-lifting when it comes to the series arc (outside of regeneration stories like “The End Of Time“, “The Time Of The Doctor” and “Twice Upon A Time”), so the only thing that’s really expected from them is having a good time and spreading a little holiday cheer.
What the showrunner chooses to do with their Christmas specials often says a lot about their respective writing styles (Russell T. Davies, for example, often chose to emulate action movies with his specials). In between the very eventful Series 5 finale, “The Big Bang“, and the equally intense Series 6 premiere, “The Impossible Astronaut“, you have “A Christmas Carol”: a comparatively more light-weight and fluffy episode that serves as a much-needed breather episode for the show. With “A Christmas Carol”, Moffat tries to stay true to the spirit of Christmas and celebrate everything that makes the holiday season special – wintery fun, the joy and imagination of children, companionship, a loving family, and goodwill to men – and as a result, this is an episode that always leaves you feeling a bit more warm and content by the time its over. As you might have guessed from the title, this episode is Doctor Who’s spin on “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, but while it takes plenty of inspiration from that novel (and Steven Moffat tips his hat to it loads of times), it’s not a straight adaption of it. The Doctor purposely tries to recreate the circumstances of that story when he takes it upon himself to try to reform Kazran Sardick, giving us a yuletide yarn about love, loss, abuse and redemption.
In “A Christmas Carol”, the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) is faced with the dilemma of saving four thousand people trapped onboard a crashing spaceship in the future – including his friends, Amy and Rory – and he needs the help of one wealthy business mogul, Kazran Sardick, to be able to pull off the rescue. But to the Doctor’s frustration, the bitter old man refuses to lift a finger to help all the terrified passengers in need. Expanding on the Eleventh Doctor’s characterization from “The Eleventh Hour” and “The Beast Below“, Steven Moffat highlights the razor-sharp detective skills he possesses, even with his hyperactive, easily distracted mind: he’s able to quickly deduce the finer details of someone’s life and whatever psychological hang-ups they might have, just by taking a quick look at the current state of their home. Once he realizes Kazran is a former victim of child abuse, who carried his scars with him into his old age, he determines that he’s not too far gone to be reasoned with – because he couldn’t strike a child that angered him – and he becomes determined to win him over non-violently.
In the present day, Eleven only has an hour to save Amy and Rory, but once he decides to go back into the past, he has all the time in the world to come up with a good plan. He haunts the elderly Kazran like a Christmas ghost, needling him as his self-appointed conscience, while he simultaneously befriends Kazran’s younger self, choosing to become his imaginary friend like he was to Amy in Series 5. Throughout “A Christmas Carol”, Eleven tries to rewrite Kazran’s entire life and change who he is at his core, for his benefit. The idea that someone could have that kind of power and take full advantage of it – even for the greater good of saving thousands of lives – is a pretty spooky thought, and it’s a certainly a manipulative move on the Doctor’s part.
Eleven is once again depicted as a plucky, resourceful trickster who’s walked straight out of a fairy tale in this episode, someone who’s both deceptively young and old at the same time and a friend to all children. He’s sympathetic to Kazran’s plight and gives him an opportunity to live out his dreams, as well as a chance to get to be a normal kid. He returns to Kazran and Abigail once a year on every Christmas Eve and takes them on a tour of the universe, so he can hopefully make Kazran a kinder person and be the positive influence in his life that his father should have been. For quite some time, they have a warm friendship (though Eleven is pretty clueless about offering Kazran romantic advice once he gets older, keeping with his dorky personality). However, one little detail slips him by – Abigail’s mortality – which throws a huge wrench into his plan and forces him to have to change it at the last minute.
As it turns out, rewriting the course of Kazran’s life wasn’t the quick and easy fix that the Doctor thought it would be, and it has some unintended consequences. Kazran’s elderly self might be a complete bastard, but I’m glad to see this episode repeatedly calls out the morality of the Doctor’s questionable actions. And I find it rather telling that he never attempts anything like this again: he seems to recognize that he overstepped some ethical boundaries as a time lord, and Abigail wound up paying the price for it. During the last act, Steven Moffat includes an understated parallel between Kazran and the Doctor. Kazran claims the Doctor could never understand how much it hurts to know you can only spend one more day with the person you love before they’re gone from your life like smoke – how could you ever decide which day to choose? But the Doctor will come to know that pain very well. He’ll spend years putting off the final date he knows he has to have with River, before sending her off to the Library and losing her forever.
The main antagonist of this episode, Kazran Sardick, is played by three different actors at three different ages, but he’s primarily portrayed by Michael Gambon. The more you learn about the world of this episode – a human colony on an alien planet in the 44th century – the more you realize it’s a really messed-up time period, with Kazran’s bloodline embodying the corruption and greed at the core of it all: the Sardick empire. He’s a miserable old miser who controls a weather machine that makes the whole planet habitable, something he inherited along with the family business a long time ago. In the 44th century, it’s apparently completely legal to use people as bargaining chips (the collateral for loans and business deals), by cryogenically freezing them away in storage for years or even decades.
Kazran is a cold and unfeeling man, who’s callous to an almost sociopathic level, since he’s completely indifferent to the idea of four thousand people dying – something he could easily avert if he wanted to. As the Doctor quickly discovers, Kazran was a victim of child abuse as a boy – his cruel loan shark of a father killed his innocence and curiosity, and drilled it into his head that the only thing that mattered in life was business success. Mr. Sardick demanded strict obedience from the boy, and basically did his best to mold him into a carbon copy of himself. Even now, as an old man, Kazran still bares some of the psychological scars that the man gave him. He used to be a kind-hearted kid and an animal lover who only wanted to see the flying fish that lived on his planet, so the Doctor figures he might have better luck reaching Kazran’s younger self. Funnily enough, due to the circumstances, Kazran is one of the only characters in the Doctor Who canon who is both the main antagonist of his episode, and a temporary companion of the Doctor.
Kazran has a crush on Abigail, one of the people his father has put into hibernation, so he decides to bring her along when the Doctor returns to him every Christmas Eve, making their wildest dreams come true – and once he’s become an adult man, the two fall in love. However, Abigail is terminally ill. She’s been living on borrowed time, and the Doctor and Kazran have unknowingly used it all up with each one of their visits. This cruel turn of events hardens Kazran’s heart, and he grows to resent the Doctor for ever coming into his life, regressing heavily as he throws himself into his father’s teachings to deal with a broken heart. Despite the Doctor’s best efforts, he still grows up to be a spiteful misanthrope, and he still decides to uphold his family’s legacy. For a long time, it seems as though the Doctor’s attempts to reform him were all for nothing, because of his own personal choices.
For the main conflict of this special, “A Christmas Carol” touches upon the cycle of abuse and the old nature vs nurture debate. It asks the question of whether some people are just born rotten, or if they’re made by their environment. Are some people doomed to repeat the sins of their predecessors, because their parents’ toxicity is ingrained in them too deeply, or do they have a choice to be better? The Doctor makes one last attempt to reach him, by taking Kazran’s younger self into his future to see what he’ll become if he continues on the path that he’s on – and it’s the worst thing he could possibly imagine. This final, impactful twist on Charles Dickens’ tale is what inspires the boy to rewrite his life for good and do his damnedest not to become his father, and in the present day, Kazran finally decides to do the right thing and let Abigail go so she can save the crashing ship. Through the magic of Christmas and time travel, Kazran Sardick finally finds redemption, and hopefully, his transformation during the twilight years of his life will make this colony a better place to live as well.
Abigail Pettigrew (Katherine Jenkins) is an animal lover with a beautiful singing voice, who’s so good with critters that she can even tame a flying shark. Abigail bonds a lot with Kazran during the Christmases they spend together, traveling happily with the Doctor, and eventually they wind up having a whirlwind romance, but she’s burdened by a miserable secret. It isn’t hard to guess what the secret is, since Moffat telegraphs it pretty heavily throughout the hour, but it’s still a depressing revelation that she’s dying from a terminal illness while she’s in what should be the prime of her life: she’ll never get to have a nice quiet life, with family and friends, like her sister. Abigail chooses to use the last day of her life to save the Doctor’s friends and everyone else onboard that crashing spaceship, and afterwards, she spends her last Christmas with Kazran, the way she would want to. It’s certainly a bittersweet ending for them both, but to quote Danny Pink several seasons down the line, every Christmas that comes along is somebody’s last Christmas, which is all the more reason to savor the time you have with the people you love, and try to make every Christmas special.
The Doctor’s friends, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill), are put in a considerable amount of peril in this episode because they’re celebrating their honeymoon in style, vacationing in space. Rory is now a series regular, with Arthur Darvill’s name appearing alongside Matt and Karen’s in the opening credits, and I find it kind of ironic that “A Christmas Carol” is the story where that change is officially acknowledged, because Amy and Rory both have about five minutes of screentime in this episode. Unlike Clara Oswald, Amy and Rory never had a large role in any of the Christmas specials they appeared in. In fact, their predicament is forgotten about for a surprisingly long amount of time, once the Doctor ventures into Kazran’s past in the middle portion of this episode, but we do get an update on how they’re faring after the events of Series 5. Their relationship is still going strong, which is great to see, and they both still have a lot of faith in the Doctor’s ability to pull off a miracle whenever they might need his help.
“A Christmas Carol” is directed by Toby Haynes, who aims to impress right away with a long, elaborate tracking shot after the theme song that takes the viewer on a scenic tour of Sardicktown, establishing this episode’s setting as being both retro and futuristic at the same time. The Mill creates a lot of really good CGI shots this week, like a whole school of fish soaring through the clouds in the sky, or the Doctor, Abigail and Kazran being pulled all across Sardicktown by a flying shark. You can tell the costume department had a lot of fun designing the overall look of this episode, because even though “A Christmas Carol” is set in the future, it has the overall aesthetic of a Victorian Christmas, allowing Doctor Who to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to paying homage to Charles Dickens’ original story.
In the same vein as his work in “Voyage Of The Damned“, Murray Gold writes a very warm, wintery, romantic and grandiose score for “A Christmas Carol”, letting the melodious vocals of a choir soar freely through the highs and lows of this adventure in tracks like “Halfway Out Of The Dark“, “I Can’t Save Her“, “Abigail“, “Goodlucknight“. Murray continues to expand on the Eleventh Doctor’s heroic theme, “I Am The Doctor”, in pieces like “Come Along, Pond“, “The Other Half Inside’s The Shark“, “This Planet Is Ours” and “Everything Has To End Sometime“, but he also writes some new material, just for this episode. Abigail’s actress, Katherine Jenkins, is an opera singer who gives an elegant and enchanting performance of Murray’s original number, “Abigail’s Song (Silence Is All You Know)“, during the climax. Mr. Gold writes plenty of instrumental variations of it and seeds them throughout the hour in tracks like “Halfway Out The Dark“, “Shark Ride“, “New Memories” and “Goodnight Abigail“, as the building blocks leading up to it.
In my opinion, “A Christmas Carol” ranks alongside “Voyage Of The Damned” as one of the best Christmas specials Doctor Who has produced so far. It does an exceptional job of retaining the bittersweet, hopeful spirit of Charles Dickens’ story about rebirth and redemption at Christmastime, and blending it with the whimsical fairy tale style of the Eleventh Doctor’s era to create its own unique tale.
* As you may recall, the Doctor has actually met Charles Dickens before in the show. The two men crossed paths in “The Unquiet Dead“, way back in Series 1.
* “On every world, wherever people are, in the deepest part of the winter, at the exact mid-point, everybody stops and turns and hugs, as if to say, well done. Well done, everyone. We’re halfway out of the dark. Back on Earth, we called this Christmas, or the Winter Solstice. On this world, the first settlers called it the Crystal Feast. You know what I call it? I call it expecting something for nothing!”
* “Who’s she?” “Nobody important” “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”.
* “There are 4,003 people I won’t allow to die tonight. Do you know where that puts you?” “Where?” “4,004” Hot damn, Doctor.
* “Merry Christmas, Mr. Sardick” “I despise Christmas!” “You shouldn’t. It’s very you” “It’s what? What do you mean?” “Halfway out of the dark”.
* “Are you lying?” “Yes, I am” “Don’t treat me like an idiot!” “Amy, was he lying?” “No, no dear”.
* “Clever old Mrs. Manters, she only went and won the lottery” “There isn’t any lottery” “I know, what a woman!”
* “Do you know, there’s a thing called a face spider. It’s just like a tiny baby’s head with spider legs, and it’s specifically evolved to scuttle up the backs of bedroom cupboards” Bitch, what? I don’t recall Kazran asking for any of that nightmare fuel, Doctor.
* “Okay, no, I’m not really a babysitter, but it’s Christmas Eve. You don’t want a real one. You want me” After a line like that, no one would have blamed Kazran in the slightest if he decided to call the space cops.
* “Are there any face spiders in here?” “Nah, not at this time of night. They’ll all be sleeping in your mattress” Doctor, what is wrong with you?
* “A shark isn’t a dolphin” “Well, see, that’s where you’re wrong because… shut up!”
* “Will it really come?” “No chance. Completely impossible. Except at Christmas”.
* I never knew I wanted to see three people riding a flying shark through the clouds on Christmas Eve, but it’s glorious.
* I’ll admit, I side-eyed Abigail just a bit during the montage. From her perspective, she’s watched Kazran come of age over the course of only a few days. I don’t think I would start looking at him as being boyfriend material as quickly as Abigail does.
* “Your card?” “No” “Oh, shut up” How many times do characters tell each other to shut up in this episode? Because it feels like it’s a lot.
* “What, now? Do I kiss her now?” “Kazran, trust me. It’s this or go to your room and design a new kind of screwdriver. Don’t make my mistakes”.
* “As a very old friend of mine once took a very long time to explain, life isn’t fair” Since Kazran’s actor is Michael Gambon, I choose to believe that was a Harry Potter reference.
* “Time can be rewritten” “You tell the Doctor. Tell him from me, people can’t!”
* “Doctor, your phone was ringing. Someone called Marilyn. Actually sounds like the Marilyn” “Tell her I’ll phone her back. And that that was never a real chapel”.