Amy Pond and Rory Williams are trapped on a crashing space liner, and the only way the Eleventh Doctor can rescue them is to save the soul of a lonely old miser. But is Kazran Sardick, the richest man in Sardicktown, beyond redemption? And what is lurking in the fogs of Christmas Eve?
A Christmas Carol is undoubtedly my favourite Christmas special, and I watch this every year and I think it is adapted perfectly for Doctor Who. Watching this story is one of my Christmas watching traditions, along with A Muppet’s Christmas Carol and Die Hard, amongst others.
Time can be rewritten.
You tell the Doctor, tell him from me: people can’t!Amy Pond and Kazran Sardick
Whilst A Christmas Carol has been adapted for television and film countless times, Steven Moffat gives Dickens’ classic story a nice science fiction twist, whilst maintaining the book’s building blocks. We get good twists on the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, Bob Cratchit and Scrooge himself. Of all these elements, the reinvention of the Ghost of Christmas Past works best as it utilises the show’s fundamental time travel element to full effect. I’m particularly fond of the moment where the Doctor and young Kazran are attempting to access the basement without success as they do not know the code, which older Kazran is shouting at the video recording, and the Doctor pops his head around the door in the story’s present. Having the device of the older Kazran watching the Doctor and his younger self is something that could potentially get stale, but the story knows when to use the framing device and when to allow the action to flow ‘full-screen’. I think that it uses the science fiction elements well when it comes to the Ghost of Christmas Present, using the hologram to bring Kazran onto the ship and experience the fear of the passengers on the spaceship, as well as returning to use time travel again for the Ghost of Christmas Future.
There are 4,003 people I won’t allow to die tonight. Do you know where that puts you?
Was that a sort of threaty thing?
Whatever happens tonight, remember: you brought it on yourself.Eleventh Doctor and Kazran Sardick
There is certainly a valid argument that the Doctor shouldn’t manipulate Kazran’s past like this, and it is interesting to see the story call him out for this. The Doctor gets so invested in the big picture of saving the 4,003 people on the ship that he overlooks the flaw in the plan: the mortality of Abigail and the impact that this will have on Kazran. It is certainly a risky strategy and one that I don’t believe we’ve seen the Doctor ever attempt something like this since. Ultimately though, this is a story about Nature versus Nuture, and whether anyone is born bad. Kazran grows up in the home of his child abusing father, who controls the cloud belt and keeps debtors’ family members on ice as collateral. Abigail’s sister Isabella mentions later on in the story that the teenage Sardick has no friends. By going back in time, it’s revealed that as a child all he wanted was to see a fish, the first of several positive memories the Doctor gives him of his childhood. Although his fledgling relationship with Abigail is doomed from the outset, it does allow his personality to soften and for him to have a richer life. It is to the story’s credit that, despite the Doctor’s efforts, this is not an easy fix though as Kazran’s personality changes so much that his father wouldn’t have programmed the machine controlling the cloud belt to respond to him at all. Ultimately, this adaptation of Dickens’ novel has the same message: nobody is beyond redemption.
There are some lovely moments of direction here by Toby Haynes. The tracking shot through Sardicktown in the moments after the cold open are beautiful and most of the CGI still holds up well, including the fish and the sharks. Other moments, like the Doctor’s entrance into Sardick’s home feel suitably epic and cinematic, whilst the framing of the Doctor in the teenage Kazran’s window when the latter seemingly goes to get the sonic screwdriver is one of the standouts of this story. Haynes seems to really understand the assignment – create a visually stunning episode that manages to feel festive whilst also maintaining a sense of drama. It would be churlish to overlook the design department here, especially considering that this is the first story that Michael Pickwoad worked on. Pickwoad was a production designer until the end of the Steven Moffat era of the show and I’m sure that I will talk about him more in future Eleventh and Twelfth Doctor reviews – he is responsible for the 360-degree TARDIS set that follows on from the steampunk design which is one of my personal favourites. The design work here conveys the Victoriana style necessary to retell a story that is synonymous with that period in Earth’s history.
I still remember being shocked when I heard that Michael Gambon was going to be in Doctor Who – it’s a feeling that happens every so often when an actor who is a household name is announced as appearing in the show. It turns out to be inspired casting. Those of you, like me, who are most familiar with his performance as Dumbledore in the later Harry Potter films will know that he is capable of being gruff and nasty. Gambon manages to make his Kazran feel like a logical progression of Danny Horn’s teenage version of the character too, which helps this all feel coherent. Horn puts in a great performance here too, and his chemistry with Katherine Jenkins’ Abigail is lovely. Considering that this is one of the few acting credits that Jenkins has and that the audience buying into their relationship is so crucial for engagement with the story, she does really well as Abigail, meaning that we really do care about her and her fledgling romance and when the revelation comes that she agreed to be frozen due to her illness, it continues to be a heartbreaking one.
Coming off a pretty spectacular debut series as the Doctor, Matt Smith shines here again. He does not seem at all intimidated acting opposite Michael Gambon and more than holds his own against him. Smith is electric on screen, whether he is in full-on detective mode, noticing how Kazran’s chair is deliberately facing away from the portrait of his father, or filling in as a childminder to the young Kazran and attempting to help him see fish. This Doctor feels so alien and detached at times – like when he gets distracted by the fish when talking to Amy, then remembers the situation in the cloud belt – that the idea of meddling in someone’s past might not flag up as an issue. That is, of course, until the issue of human mortality comes up. Like the other Christmas special where they are companions to the Doctor, Amy and Rory are largely sidelined here. Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill do well with what they are given, however, with Rory largely providing comic relief and Amy given a little bit more to do. In any case, I really enjoy how this story uses them – they get a further series and a half to continue their storyline, and the joke of them wearing costumes and coming from the honeymoon suite won’t ever fail to raise a smile.
Verdict: This is my favourite Christmas special. Everything from the direction to the acting is just spot on, and full of quotable lines. 10/10
Cast: Matt Smith (The Doctor). Karen Gillan (Amy Pond), Arthur Darvill (Rory Williams), Michael Gambon (Kazran/Elliot Sardick), Katherine Jenkins (Abigail), Laurence Belcher (Young Kazran), Danny Horn (Adult Kazran), Leo Bill (Pilot), Pooky Quesnel (Captain), Micah Balfour (Co-pilot), Steve North (Old Benjamin), Bailey Pepper (Boy & Benjamin), Tim Plester (Servant), Nick Malinowski (Eric), Laura Rogers (Isabella) & Meg Wynn-Owen (Old Isabella).
Writer: Steven Moffat
Director: Toby Haynes
Behind the Scenes
- The first BBC Wales Christmas special not to be written by Russell T Davies and star David Tennant. It is notable for marking the promotion of Arthur Darvill to the main cast and the first to include his name in the opening credits.
- It is the first Christmas special to include the Doctor’s regular companions since The Christmas Invasion, the first not to be set on or near Earth and also the first not to feature any death – if we don’t count the small fish eaten by a shark.
- ‘Abigail’s Song’ is the first English language song to be composed for the series since ‘The Stowaway’ in Voyage of the Damned and the first to be central to the plot.
- A Christmas Carol is loosely based on Charles Dickens’ novel of the same name.
- Danny Horn has reprised the role of Kazran with Big Finish in the stories Living History and The Top of the Tree.
- Pooky Quesnel appeared in Doctor Who spin-off Class as Dorothea Ames.
- Laura Rogers voiced Queen Tristahna in Living History.
There are a lot of great moments in this story, but it has to be the Doctor’s entrance down the chimney.
Nobody important? Blimey, that’s amazing. You know, in 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before.The Eleventh Doctor and Kazran Sardick
Previous Eleventh Doctor review: The Big Bang