Only Doctor Who could take Charles Dickens, a flying shark, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, a Star Trek homage (complete with lens flares a la the new film), “face spiders,” (don’t ask), steampunk, and even a drop of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and use these seemingly random elements to craft one of the single most superb and deeply moving Christmas episodes in television history. The Who Christmas specials are always a hoot, but in this, his first Christmas special as showrunner, the ingenious Steven Moffat is working on a whole new level, reinventing A Christmas Carol in a uniquely Who-vian manner that twists the classic tale in new and stunning ways–the Ghost of Christmas Future, in particular, had my mouth dropping agape–so that, while the general arc of the story remains intact, the way in which the Scrooge character is brought from his cruel, miserly state to one of tenderness and even heroism is truly surprising.
At the start, it seems that Doctor Who‘s A Christmas Carol might amount to a simple game of watching the Doctor recreate and update Dickens’ old chestnut, but it soon evolves into something so much more than that. Turning A Christmas Carol into a Doctor Who story might seem to be a relatively straightforward endeavor; after all, it is already a tale of time travel. And yet Moffat doesn’t take the easy way of simply having the Doctor bring the quite awful Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon) in the TARDIS to various points in his history, present, and future. No, it is much more wibbly, wobbly, timey, and, yes, wimey than that, though I refuse to spoil it for any non-UK people who have still yet to experience its truly magical spell.
Suffice it to say that it captures the best of Dickens’ novella and the best of Doctor Who in one fell swoop. Like the original Christmas Carol, at times, it is truly suspenseful verging on outright scary; at times, it is hauntingly beautiful; at times, it is humorous, even a bit goofy; at times, it is heartbreaking; at times, it is uplifting; and often, it is all of these things at once. Weaving in themes and motifs that have run throughout his best episodes, such as The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink, Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, and The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, as well as from some of our most cherished children’s stories, Moffat taps into the essence of the winter solstice and of the Doctor himself. The Doctor is much more similar to Sardick than he originally seems. For what is A Christmas Carol but the tale of an old man who travels through time, who has loved and lost, and who ultimately finds his own humanity in the people who he has chosen to surround him in his life? Compare the Doctor in this episode, attending a Christmas celebration and having recently attended Amy and Rory’s wedding, to the Doctor at the start of the new series, the Doctor who refused to do family dinners and who refused to wait, and you will see how much he has grown. This is why the Doctor is able to influence Sardick, in turn.
Doctor Who‘s A Christmas Carol is a story of imaginary friends, childhood dreams, wonders, and fears, true love, rebirth, and discovery, featuring deeply lovely performances by guest stars, Michael Gambon and Katherine Jenkins, and what might be Matt Smith’s best performance as the Doctor yet. His confidence in the role has grown with each passing episode, and this is one of those times where it’s easy to momentarily forget he hasn’t always been there. The episode should also be commended for remaining secular but at the same time getting to the spiritual root not just of Christmas but of all winter holidays–that is, a joyous celebration of making it halfway out of the dark. Like Sardick, the Doctor is still on his way.