Let’s hear it for the first ever Doctor Who episode to be broadcast on the same day on both sides of the Atlantic (December 25, 2010, natch)! That’s the good news. The bad news is that BBC America is not in HD in my town, which made the US-broadcast version look, well, less than good. Aside from the picture quality, this was also the first time I’ve tried to watch Doctor Who (a program made for the commercial-free BBC) with commercials awkwardly shoehorned into it at regular intervals, which meant that watching the episode was kind of like reading a book with someone periodically screaming in your ear. So, despite the day-and-date broadcast, I still found myself looking elsewhere to get a high-quality, commercial-free version to watch.
And, boy, am I glad I held out for a version in HD because this episode looked great, if nothing else! The foggy, steam punk setting for the episode was brilliantly realized, a mixture of nostalgic Victorian England and futuristic, sci-fi trappings. The first time they showed a school of tiny flying fish circling a street lamp like it was a plastic castle in a fish bowl, my eyes were glued to the screen. And who thought a flying shark pulling a carriage could look cool instead of stupid?
Don’t get me wrong, though, the episode was not all about the visual effects. There was a real story here. Obviously, Steven Moffat (the current executive producer of Doctor Who and the writer of this particular episode) started with the template and title of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but Moffat didn’t so much rehash that story as cleverly reinvent it. The Ghost of Christmas Past (the Doctor, of course) actually traveled to the past and messed around with the Kazran Sardick’s childhood, changing the man in the present by influencing the boy. Cool! The Ghost of Christmas Present (Amy) then used her holographic powers to both appear to Kazran as a spooky green phantom and to project the interior of the doomed ship around him, thereby taking him to the scene of the disaster. Most clever of all, though, was the Ghost of Christmas Future (the Doctor again) not bothering to take Kazran to see his future/death, but instead taking the young Kazran to his future (the present) to see the bitter old man he had become. Well played, Mr. Moffatt! These changes meant that the story did follow Dickens’ original novella, but mixed it up enough so it wasn’t just another boring rehash.
As for the acting, Matt Smith was great as usual. He’s really fallen into the role of the Doctor now, seeming to me like a blend of the First Doctor, the Second Doctor, and the Fifth Doctor. Michael Gambon (who I think we can all agree made the superior Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies) was excellent as well, making me both hate and pity Kazran. I’ve never heard of the episode’s other major guest star, a British singer named Katherine Jenkins, but she was fine, too. Her acting as Abigail didn’t really pull me out of the episode, anyway, even though her singing isn’t really my cup of tea. Given that I’m not overly fond of either of the Doctor’s current companions (Karen Gillan as Amy Pond and Arthur Darvill [whose name now appears in the opening credits, by the way] as Rory Williams), I can’t say that I was too upset that the unlikely newlyweds ended up stuck on board a crashing spaceship with the cast of Star Trek for the entire story, thereby minimizing their roles. It made them more palatable, that’s for sure! I did like how they put Amy and Rory back into their most “iconic” costumes from the preceding series (slutty policewoman and Roman centurion, respectively), explaining the odd sartorial choices as “a bit of fun” for them in their honeymoon suite.
No, the episode wasn’t perfect. But, then, what is? There were, indeed, a few cheesy lines (“Everyone stops and turns and hugs as if to say ‘Well, done, everyone!’”), but if you can’t be cheesy at Christmastime, then when can you be cheesy? Aside from the cheese, there were also a few lines of dialogue that simply didn’t work. The worst was when old Kazran said to the Doctor, “Was that a sort of threat-y thing?” which sounds more like something Joss Whedon would write for Buffy Summers instead of something an old, powerful rich dude would actually say. There was also at least one sequence (when the Doctor is analyzing Kazran and his environment near the beginning of the episode) that seemed lifted directly from Sherlock, Moffat’s other BBC series, but I chose to take that sequence as a kind of in-joke regarding his other job rather than a jarring, out-of-place element that didn’t match stylistically with the rest of the episode. And, yes, there were some logic problems. For example, why was Abigail frozen as collateral in the first place if she was dying at the time? What kind of collateral is that? Clearly Kazran’s father knew she was dying because he placed a convenient “life-count-down-ometer” on the outside of her freezer. Setting aside the idea that they even could predict, down to the day, how much time she had left to live, why would Kazran’s father have installed such a counter anyway? Why would he care? Finally, the boy who played young Kazran was a bit over-the-top for my taste. He seemed more like a kid who’s taken one-too-many acting lessons rather than a natural talent. I say send him back to his role as Gavroche in Les Miserables and start looking for kids who aren’t unnaturally hammy for TV.
Aside from those rather minor points, though, I enjoyed the episode quite a bit. It was certainly Christmas-y! Murray Gold’s music was excellent as always, and I loved seeing the Eleventh Doctor in a scarf reminiscent of the Fourth Doctor’s, even if it was just for one moment. Overall, I’d say this was the best of Doctor Who’s Christmas Specials. Looking back at the previous ones, though, that may seem like faint praise.