A Dickensian Christmas: A Christmas Carol in Perspective
David Selby looks back on Matt Smith’s first Christmas special.
“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead […] but if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.” –Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol is a well-known favourite. As someone who is easily embroiled in the festive spirit, I find myself enjoying most, if not all, Christmas specials, but A Christmas Carol undoubtedly stands out among the rest. As well as being enormous fun, like the Dickens classic (incidentally, my favourite story of all time), it is sophisticated: a mature, compelling piece of drama with a fascinating structure and selection of well-made characters. Here, I will examine some of the key facets of the episode that made it such a riveting success.
“Nobody important? Blimey, that’s amazing. You know that in nine hundred years of time and space, I’ve never met anybody who wasn’t important before.”
One of the lessons taught to Kazran through the Doctor (or ‘Christmas Past’) is of individual human significance. Abigail is initially dismissed as “nobody important”, yet through the Doctor’s alteration of Kazran’s life, she becomes the one woman who is pivotal throughout all his ages (in awe of her during childhood, developing into a romantic relationship, then finally aching for her years later). Analogous to Scrooge, who says to his nephew: “What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough”, Kazran is portrayed as condescending, making a similar remark to which Abigail replies: “They are very poor. Doesn’t mean you can’t be happy”. He’s almost blameless. To his mind, being hard-up is the worst possible state of being.
And that’s Christmas Past’s lesson: Kazran learns that anyone, whether or not they are the “surplus population” (a sneaky reference to Dickens’ original), is equally important. This links in with the overreaching arc of the crashing star-liner – people who Kazran sees as “cattle”; eventually appreciating their true value.
“Fish that can swim in fog. I love new planets!”
Ember is one of Doctor Who’s greatest one-off planets. It is similar to Earth in many respects: a Dickensian, almost ‘steampunk’, society with a clear divide between rich and poor. The Cloud Belt, plus the ‘fog’-fish, were ingenious inventions – the latter, eventually, a reminder that there is no true ‘monster’ in this story.
“I’m the Ghost of Christmas Past.”
For its time, the narrative structure of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was astonishing. In many ways, it was the earliest example of time-travel in literature; moving between decades but without the aid of science. Moffat embellishes the same Christmas magic but also manages to create an imaginative structure where, despite the ‘timey-wimeyness’ of the narrative, it remains consistent and easy-to-follow, making it feel like one big story.
Christmas Past, Present and Future are beautifully presented. Christmas Present, with the edition of Silent Night, is a moving scene and personal favourite. Indeed, Kazran’s dialogue with Amy and the Doctor is my highlight of the episode – appearing once more as the callous, cold-hearted old man we saw in the start, but eventually realising he is not his father, and that having a broken heart is better than no heart at all. The audience are not insulted. “You try it!” urges Kazran. Tragically – ironically, in fact – the Doctor has, and suffers deeply watching Kazran’s torment. It’s one of Matt Smith’s finest performances.
“Well, there’s a moon that’s made of actual honey. Well, not actual honey, and it’s not actually a moon, and technically it’s alive and a bit carnivorous, but there are some lovely views.”
Amy and Rory take a step back for the festive special, but thankfully we get a follow-up directly from the Series Five finale, where the couple have recently become wedded. We now see the Doctor’s failed attempts to find them a peaceful honeymoon. Gillan is at her best, as she is placed in a situation where she must act independently (the actress and character’s strength).
“Ah. Yes. Blimey. Sorry. Christmas Eve on a rooftop, saw a chimney, my whole brain just went: “What the hell!””
Most importantly, A Christmas Carol is, to put it simply, fun. It is a family-friendly, often hilarious story with some amusing moments of dialogue (“Big… big colour!”). Matt Smith’s childlike performance is especially beneficial to the episode’s magic and childlike wonder. The inventive cinematography and Katherine Jenkins’ enchanting vocals enhance the episode’s ‘sparkle’ further.
“Everything’s got to end sometime. Otherwise nothing would ever get started.”
My main concern regarding the showrunner is his ‘fear’ of killing off characters or embracing brutal/tragic realism. Here, he accepts his characters’ fates and leaves them celebrating Christmas with the worst at the very back of their minds; appropriate, perhaps, during the festive season, and close to real life. “Everything has to end sometime,” says the Doctor. And he’s right – it’s a Sarah Jane Adventures-esque moment. He’s looking on the bright side of life. Christmas. Halfway out of the dark.