Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol answers a longstanding sci-fi conundrum: Is there Christmas in outer space? The answer, we're told, is yes: Across the universe, people stop to celebrate some kind of Christmas-like holiday midway through the winter, congratulating each other on making it "halfway out of the dark." This ultimate conflation of Christmas and the winter solstice, completing the universalizing work of medieval Christian missionaries, may remove the holiday as far as it's ever been from the infant embedded in its name, but it does celebrate a worthy goal of hope and charity that deserves universalizing.
The last two Doctor Who Christmas specials were part of the show's elaborate goodbye to David Tennant; their stories were wholly devoted to his Tenth Doctor. Guest turns by big names like John Simm, Timothy Dalton, and Bernard Cribbins, while delightful, had the effect of celebrity guests at a movie star's retirement tribute.
But while the current Doctor, Matt Smith, does a fine job in this year's installment of the new series's Christmas Day tradition, careening between gravity and absurdity with increasing confidence and aplomb, Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol belongs wholly to its guest star, Michael Gambon.
Cast as Kazran Sardick, Gambon radiates such bah-humbug anti-Christmas rancor at the top of the special that one might be forgiven for dreading the onset of a distressingly literal retread of Dickens's sturdy novella. But this is in fact a red herring. As the story develops, Gambon unwraps Kazran layer by layer, manifesting in face and gesture the ancient roots of his pain.
The twists of the story require Gambon to struggle with the rewiring of his own life, drawing sympathy for the crusty old man and even alarm that the Doctor's meddling might only be causing more personal pain. Though Doctor Who often paints grand vistas and routinely conjures dangers that threaten all of creation, writer Steven Moffat knows that the show's format is often most effective when the peril of many is balanced against the torment of a single person. It's only because he succeeds in the end that we're less prone to ask whether the Doctor has the right to mess with someone's entire life.
Many Kinds of Stories
As with other versions of the Carol, the Doctor Who version involves incidents in the past of its central character. In these Gambon is helped by two talented actors playing younger versions of Kazran: Laurence Belcher as a boy, and Danny Horn as a teenager. Kazran's story threads through that of his forbidding father, on the one hand, and the joy and freedom offered by Abigail, a woman kept in suspended animation by the elder Sardick as collateral for a loan. As portrayed by Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins in a scintillating acting debut, Abigail seems to shine on the dimness of Kazran's young life -- making later events that force their parting even more agonizing for Kazran than the brutal discipline of his family life.
The storyline with the Doctor, the lifespan of Kazran, and Abigail is actually quite full, leaving little room for Smith's current co-stars, Karen Gillan (Amy) and Arthur Darvill (Rory), who has finally been inserted in the show's credits. Moffat makes a game attempt to involve Amy in the effort to build a better Kazran, but poor Rory is, temporarily one hopes, reduced to a joke in the hectic proceedings.
In the end Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol achieves exactly what it's supposed to: it's a carnival ride for folks with one eye on the TV at the family Christmas, a heartwarming drama for those paying more attention, and a bridge to keep the Doctor in the lives of all his fans between the story arcs of his regular run. Moffat could have done this with the safeties on, but he pulled out all the stops, and now we'll never look at fish the same way again.