5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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A CHRISTMAS CAROL
Who wrote this episode?
What a dumb question. Steven Moffat, of course. Showrunner, head writer, executive producer: the Grand Moff Tarkin of Doctor Who.
Ah, but it’s not that simple. When it comes to writing, it’s not just “Steven Moffat”. It’s Good Moffat, and it’s Bad Moffat.
Good Moffat writes episodes like Blink. In those episodes, the puzzles Moffat cherishes are seamlessly worked out within a framework that also pays loving attention to plot detail and character development. Those episodes are very, very good.
Bad Moffat writes episodes like The Time Of Angels/Flesh And Stone. In those episodes, Moffat thinks of an idea. Oh, how he loves that idea. Nothing, nothing at all, must get in its way. And nothing does, including character development or the slightest concern with plausibility. Those episodes make us want to tear our hair out at the sheer, horrific waste of a good idea gone bad.
Who wrote this episode? That’s not a simple question. Lots of it is Good Moffat without a doubt. But to make it work, Bad Moffat has to take a turn at the keyboard.
It starts nicely with a fun fakeout. The crashing ship, with the uberSFy sterile white interiors and the Trek parody (“I’m flying blind”, indeed. Snerf!), is all too familiar, but fortunately turns out to be nothing more than a McGuffin. Down we plunge to steampunk Dickens, and is that….Michael Gambon doing the voiceover? Fabboo!
Then the man himself heaves into view and is, naturally, effortlessly stellar. If you’d have told us in, ooh, 2001 when we were starting this site that Future Who would have talent of this calibre falling over themselves to appear, you could have knocked us down with a helium-filled feather.
And the Scrooge scenario is intriguingly twisted too. What’s with the dame on ice? We dunno, but we definitely want to find out.
Going well so far. Then the Doctor arrives, and how could it do anything but get even better? That, of course, is a rhetorical question. Matt Smith is superb, amazing, name your own superlative. There’s some delightfully sharp and witty writing in here, and we particularly like the quintessentially Doctorly “Ice clouds, love that, who’s she?...Do you know, in 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before.”
And the scene that follows is phenomenal. The Doctor thinks he has Kazran’s measure and does his best intimidation. Kazran is unruffled, with one of our favourite lines, “Was that a sort of threaty thing?”, but his Achilles heel is revealed when the adorable little tyke heaves a lump of coal at him and he’s unable to give him a thumping. The Doctor realises he’s missed something about Kazran and switches into high gear. There’s a bit of a bleedover in here from Moffat’s Sherlock series as the Doctor works out the clues given by the chairs and the painting, especially in the way it’s shot, but it’s perfectly Doctorly when Matt delivers it. We don’t want to keep droning on about this, but the acting here from both actors is fantastic. The vulnerability Michael Gambon reveals in his character, especially in his amazing reaction shots, switch him instantly from cardboard villain to real and complex person.
Which is just as well, because his character development, and the two-hander with the Doctor that fuels it, are Moffat’s Big Idea. Not from the point of view that it’s never been done before, of course, because it’s an obvious riff on the original Dickens. However, making this the only thing that actually matters in the story is, if not unheard of, very unusual in Who.
And at this point in the story, we fully expected to love it without reservation. How often have we sermonised about big boofy action scenes being infinitely duller than character development? How much do we love watching Matt Smith just being the Doctor instead of running around dodging explosions? How much respect and awe do we have for Michael Gambon’s acting? A lot, that’s what. A lot.
And we did keep loving it, for quite a while. The “I’ve met a man who can control it - but he hates me” exchange with Amy is perfectly on point, and the Doctor’s distraction by the fish swimming around the lamp is full of the sensawunda that should always be in Doctor Who but these days hardly ever is. And we love the way the Doctor’s shouting “CHRISTMAS CAROL!” gives him the clue as to how to deal with Kazran.
Then the Doctor’s plan grinds into action. After Kazran’s spine-chilling “Nobody comes”, the Doctor’s Peter Pan (again) entrance through the young Kazran’s window’s a stonker. We’ve always liked Moffat’s predilection for throwing time travel in mid-episode instead of just using it as a bracket (we only wonder why in forty-seven years hardly anyone else did it). And a big tick for the cleverness of “Who are you talking to?” “You.” - and, of course, the utterly inspired face spiders.
Up to this point, it’s perfect. Not a foot put wrong; indeed, many, many feet put very right. But the first misstep comes with the arrival of the shark. It’s so utterly random, and so unbelievable in the way it just makes feeble snaps at the Doctor rather than burying its molars in his cranium, that it seems chucked in for the sake of it. It’s as if Moffat realises he needs to up the tempo a bit, casts around for something scary, does an eeny-meeny-miny-mo and ends up with a shark. Even the terrific dialogue (“What do you call it if you don’t have any feet and you’re taking a run-up?”) can’t redeem the randomness, especially when having trapped himself in a fishing net Moffat can only cut himself out of it by cutting to the post-shark-KO scene.
By this time, we’ve had about 27 exemplary minutes of running time, with nothing wrong with it except the shark, but oh dear. Good Moffat is jostling for space in front of the monitor with Bad Moffat. Because after this, very little makes sense. Not in the what the frozen hell’s going on way, of course. But in the way in which these characters would never do these things? Oh, yeah.
The Doctor asks why the people are frozen, and Young Kazran tells him it’s because his Dad is taking them as collateral. Pretty outrageous abuse of human rights, yes? Well, sort of. You think so, and we think so, but the Doctor just makes a disapproving remark about the lovability of Sardick Senior. What? This is precisely the kind of thing the Doctor would land on infallibly like a duck on a June bug. Yeah, he can’t save everybody (we know this because of the foreshadowing with the shark), so he can’t save Ice Queen. Fair enough. But to turn his back on all the other human popsicles? Not in this or any other universe.
Also, there’s always something fundamentally flawed about a plot which depends on somebody being moronic, and if that’s atypical moronicity, that goes double. The Doctor notices the counter on the freezer, and asks Abigail about it. She drops a massive anvil of a hint on his head by asking if he’s one of her doctors. He gets distracted - again, fair enough - and never notices the counter or asks about her health again. Not fair enough at all. This is the Doctor we’re talking about. He just doesn’t let stuff like that drop. Particularly ironic, isn’t it, that he’s so tra-la-la about her fate after his speech about never having met anybody who wasn’t important?
Abigail, of course, is a cipher, not a character. But let’s pretend she’s not for a moment. Why would she, in so many of her eight remaining days of life, opt to spend them with a strange guy and some strange kid instead of with her family? We’ll give them a pass on the counter thing being so accurate. Stupid though it seems, you can always put it down to Space Technology. Same for the fact that she seems perfectly healthy up to and including Drop Dead Day (and yes, we heard the excuse in there about resting in the ice helping her. Huh.) Space Disease, natch. But we’re certainly not handing out any passes for the idea that she would have been acceptable collateral with only a few days to live. What kind of pathetic collateral is that?
The ship crashing being a McGuffin clears the stage for what Steven Moffat thinks is important, all right, but it comes with a big downside. Other than in the vaguest way, and except for Amy and Rory, we don’t care about the fate of the anonymous thousands the whole thing’s hanging on at all. And as for Kazran meeting his younger self, don’t let the word Blinovitch even nibble at the corner of your mind, or your head will explode.
And what about what the Doctor does? Yes, he’s doing it for noble reasons, and with the expectation that the outcome’s better for Kazran as well, but nevertheless, there’s something distinctly creepy about the Doctor rummaging around so thoroughly in Kazran’s life with deliberate intent to change his entire past. What a long way we’ve come from “Not one line!”.
Not to mention that popping back to iron the creases out of the recent past opens up a very messy can of worms indeed (and who needs a canned worm?). Thanks to LizR for pointing out to us that if it's OK to save the ship by messing with Kazran's timeline, why isn't it OK for the Doctor to nip back in time to the ship while it was still possible to lock on to it? He could have either scooped everyone into the TARDIS or, more simply, just have made them steer the bloody thing round the edge of the cloud. It's bad enough that the TARDIS is always standing by as a potential miracle cure that has to be laboriously discounted every time: add the apparent OKness of twiddling timelines, and most plots are slaughtered before they even get out of the gate.
It’s a toughie. Ignore all this stuff and shut your eyes to the shark and it’s very good indeed. Even all the slush, with the shark-drawn carriage rides and quantities of fake snow being flung about, are all right because oh well, it’s a Christmas episode. It was probably unalloyed joy if you were half-sloshed on Advocaat on Christmas Day. (Because of our magical time-travelling abilities as New Zealanders, we were watching it just after Christmas while the UK was still up to its neck in mistletoe, and just after Christmas is a time when anything Christmassy is about as stale as last year’s turkey.)
But what about the second half? How important is it that it bends characters out of shape in order to achieve the big emotional highs Steven Moffat’s set his heart on? We’re not sure we even have an answer. Ignore all that and there’s so much wonderful stuff in here. We love the neat reversal of the Ghost Of Christmas Future, we like the way Amy’s included via hologram, and of course both Matt Smith and Michael Gambon are spectacular to the bitter end.
But you can’t pretend the bad stuff doesn’t exist. It’s right there. The first time we saw the episode, all that absolutely ruined it for us. The second time through, we knew what was coming, shut our eyes to it and enjoyed all the other great stuff. We don’t think either way was the “right” way to watch it. But we do wish Moffat had tried a little harder to work his way around the sticking points. If he had, it would have gone from wonderful yet problematic to total cracker.
MORAL: Anything close to its expiry date should be stored in the freezer.
TOUCH-A TOUCH-A TOUCH-A TOUCH ME
The isomorphic controls scene, as well as being a tour de force physical comedy-wise on Matt Smith’s part, is a fun joke for classic series fans.
FURTHER TO MY MEMO OF THE 25TH INST
There’s all that nudge-nudge stuff about Amy and Rory wearing costumes, but would they? Those costumes? For both of them, it’d be like wearing your corporate wardrobe.
MANY HAPPY RETURNS
Lucky the shark was still alive, wasn’t it?
It’s a nice touch the way Kazran unties his bowtie as he’s suggesting the Doctor doesn’t return next Christmas Eve, signifying his emotional disengagement from him.
We’re normally not exactly fans of Murray Gold’s Doctor Who work. But credit where credit’s due: Abigail’s Song is so beautiful it made us cry. Bravo.